November, 2015

A History of Elephant Conservation

Press secretary at Animat Habitat

There are estimates of nearly thirty million African elephants in the wild, in the 1500s, when europeans started exploring Africa.


Elephant populations were declined to ten million by the early 1900s, which fueled an ivory frenzy in Europe with the mass production of combs, brush handles, piano keys, billiard balls and so on. This was at a time that United States consumed 200 tons of ivory per year. Elephants continued to be slaughtered into the 1950s, with influxes that correlated to African regions gaining independence from colonial rule.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was agreed to on March 3, 1973, and CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix III in 1976, then Appendix II in 1977, as a result regulated the continued international trade for commercial ivory; the Endangered Species Act was signed into law on December 28, 1973, and the African elephant was listed as threatened in 1978, yet, with a clause that allowed continued international trade for commercial ivory under the regulation of CITES.Estimates from the first pan-African elephant survey, led by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, in 1979, reported the African elephant population at just over one million.


The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed groundbreaking undercover footage of criminal syndicates caught red-handed exposing how the ivory trade operated; ten years after international trade of commercial ivory was regulated, the African elephant population had, again, declined by more than half; 600,000 remained by 1989; CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix I, as a result a ban on the international sale of ivory went into effect in early 1990; the African Elephant Conservation Act passed in 1989, banning the import of African elephant ivory into the United States; and, also in 1989, Kenya destroyed its 12-ton ivory stockpile as a gesture against the ivory trade.


Kenya destroyed another 6.8 tons in 1991, followed closely by Zambia, in 1992, with nearly 10 tons. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe submitted proposals, in 1997, to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II based on some early signs of recovery, and to sell their ivory stockpiles; CITES approved a first one-off sale, of more than 50 tons — more than five thousand tusks, for approximately US$5,000,000 to a single buyer, Japan, in 1999. Also, in the late 1990s, CITES approved the proposed Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), established to keep its member states informed on the status of illegal killing and trade.


In 2002, South Africa submitted a proposal to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II, and South Africa plus Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe proposed a second one-off sale; CITES approved and, by 2008, auctioned more than 100 tons of stockpiled ivory to two buyers, Japan and China, for a combined total of approximately US$15,000,000; soon-to-be-criticized ETIS and MIKE lacked evidence of causality between ivory stockpile sales and poaching levels; in 2006, delegates from nineteen African elephant range states called for a total ban on trade in ivory; the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) passed a CITES-instituted nine-year moratorium on new ivory stockpile sale proposals, agreed to in 2007, in effect through 2017. Also, in the 2000s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced a nature documentary series, filmed over four years across sixty-four different countries, wherein David Attenborough celebrated the natural world, and, in 2006, screened Planet Earth in high definition, and changed the way we picture wildlife.


The price of ivory reached US$1,000 per pound in Beijing, as a consumer class emerged in China and increased demand, and, driven by low wages in Africa, the numbers of poached elephants and large-scale ivory seizures rose so high that 2011 was labeled annus horibilis for the species. In July, Kenya, again, symbolically destroyed its ivory stockpile, this time 5 tons, a gesture that Gabon matched the following year, and Philippines and United States matched the year after that, and marked the first time an ivory-consuming nation took such a step.


Poachers traveled across the Sahara desert to massacre hundreds of elephants in the span of a few days in Bouba Ndjida National Park, Cameroon; the scale of the killing was unprecedented; empirical research, documented between 2009 and 2013, demonstrated that poaching of elephants surpassed a level at which elephant populations naturally reproduce; CITES recognized that elephant poaching again reached an unsustainable level; and, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a Call-to-Action to world leaders to stop the epic slaughter of African elephants.


It is estimated that more than one hundred elephants died every day in 2013; ivory seizures across the world reached a new high; mainland Chinese visitors exceeded forty million — more than double the number from 2009; the price per pound of ivory in China exceeded US$1,000 — more than triple the amount from 2010; one elephant yielded about 20 pounds of ivory, which valued at nearly US$30,000; the African elephant population is estimated at 470,000 and confined to well-protected areas; United States President Barack Obama passed an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking, followed by the aforementioned United States ivory crush — which included 25 years’ worth of seized tusks, carvings, and trinkets — to raise awareness of the global poaching crisis.


In early March, in Chad, nearly one hundred elephants were killed in a devastating blow to one of Central Africa's last remaining elephant populations. Earlier, in January, China, the world’s biggest consumer of illegal ivory, crushed 6 tons of tusks and carved ornaments to signal it would do more to join global efforts to protect African elephants from rampant poaching; also in January, Hong Kong, noted for its more than four hundred licensed businesses displaying more than thirty thousand ivory items for sale — more than any other city in the world, announced plans to destroy more than 30 tons of illegal ivory, yet confirmed only 1 ton destroyed, crushed in May; Chad, France and Belgium each destroyed ivory stockpiles that weighed more than 5 tons combined. Paul Allen and Elephants Without Borders launched the Great Elephant Census, the first-ever pan-African aerial census, and preliminary data suggested dramatic drops in populations in some regions, plus a few surprise herds in places where elephants did not previously exist. Kathryn Bigelow directed Last Days, an acclaimed animated short, animated by, namely, among other talented artists, production designer Sam Michlap, head of layout Lorenzo Martinez, story artist Larry Leker and animation studio supervisor Ken Duncan who, twenty years earlier, worked together on The Lion King, now, helped to make aware the very real connection between elephant poaching and terrorism.


According to the 2015 report on Hong Kong’s Ivory by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne for the Kenyan NGO Save the Elephants, the total ivory stockpile that weighed 665 tons, in 1989, now weighed about 111 tons, yet sales in the last four years accounted for only 5 tons of ivory; the paradox — thriving sales that never diminish the supply — can be explained by flaws in the licensing system that let unscrupulous traders funnel illegal ivory into the legal trade; the EIA released an internal Chinese government document which, it said, showed that, over 12 years, officials had lost track of more than 130 tons of stockpiled ivory — equivalent to the tusks of eleven thousand elephants. Kenya, again, kicked off a symbolic defiance of trade in ivory, burned 15 tons, followed closely by over 6 tons in Ethiopia; nearly 5 tons in Republic of Congo; more than 10 tons in United Arab Emirates; nearly 1 ton in China; 1 ton in United States; and, more than 2 tons in Mozambique.

What's next?

It all starts with relieving poverty by ensuring that everyone has access to food, water and shelter; recognizing the damage caused by excessive and wasteful consumption; stopping the destruction of the natural world; curbing pollution of air, land and water and extending the efficient use of all resources; securing spaces, refuges, wildlife corridors giving elephants rights of passage along migratory routes; expanding on the less than twenty percent of African elephant habitat under formal protection; and, creating well-timed publicity, gaining widespread public support, as well as establishing support among influential decision makers for a central proposition that is rooted in scientific evidence and facts about the ivory trade.

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