Monthly Archives: July 2011

Philadelphia’s Ivory Bust

All of this is ivory. (Photo from The New York Times)

I know I’m running the risk of turning this into a ‘Save the Elephants’ blog (see my last post, and the one from April), but I felt I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the ENORMOUS confiscation of ivory merchandise, or actually  “one of the largest U.S. seizures of illegally imported African elephant ivory,” (Wall Street Journal) that occurred in Philadelphia yesterday.

A store owner was arrested for selling ivory that he obtained by paying someone to travel to Africa, procure the ivory, and have local artisans there carve it. “Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the nearly 500 carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were treated to resemble century-old antiques, which are legal for sale,” (Philly.com) Unfortunately, however, this ivory was not old – it was taken from elephants recently killed, namely forest elephants. “Smuggling is considered a significant factor in the decline of the forest elephants, whose ivory is denser and more valued than the tusks from the more numerous savanna elephants in East Africa,” (Philly.com).

Here is an excerpt in one article about this incident that I found particularly important:

“A Fish and Wildlife Service expert on elephant conservation, just back from Africa, said the rows of illegally imported ivory carvings left him traumatized. The number of forest elephants killed for their tusks has jumped in recent years, much of it driven by demand from a newly affluent Asian market, said the expert, Richard Ruggerio, who runs the agency’s conservation programs in Africa. ‘We’re seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant,’ he said. Ruggerio said the herds have been broken up not just by the killing of individual elephants, but also by the damage done to the group structure when a lead elephant has been eliminated. ‘They act like displaced persons from a war,’ he said. James Deutsch, who runs the African conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said forest elephants in Central Africa ‘could go extinct in 10 to 20 years. This is why this seizure is important,’ he said. Deutsch estimated there were about 100,000 forest elephants left in central Africa. Herds are already gone from a large part of their original range. Forest elephants can live to more than 50 years. Recent genetic studies show that the smaller forest elephants are distant cousins of the savanna elephant. The split is estimated to have occurred from two million to seven million years ago,” (Philly.com)

It sickens me to think of how many times I stood outside that store, admiring the African wares inside. I used to live right around the corner. I would walk my dog past there every day and stare in at the African masks on the walls and the clothing and other goods in the window, thinking about my own travels to that continent and how much I loved it. I don’t know if some of the trinkets I ogled in the store were ivory or not. I hope for my conscience’s sake they were not. But at least this counts as one more victory in the war on wildlife. Let’s keep fighting.

Intricately carved tusks that were seized (Photo from http://www.metro.us)

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Some Small Successes for a JUMBO Problem

Those who know me are familiar with my elephant obsession. For those who don’t, if you stick around here long enough you will realize that I am passionate about elephants to the point of losing sleep over their many plights. Recently there have been a number of stories written about the ongoing elephant poaching crises and the unrelenting desire for ivory. I wrote a post on this topic myself not too long ago. Vanity Fair has just published an article for their August issue titled Agony and Ivory  – please click the link below to watch a short video that describes the research behind the story (the footage is amazing):

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-video

The comment that scares me the most: “If 35,000 elephants are being killed a year and there’s only 500,000 left, then they would all be gone in less than 20 years unless we do something fast about this.” (Alex Shoumatoff)

This is why I lose sleep.

You can read the full Vanity Fair article here:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-201108

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes the African elephant population as “vulnerable”; their numbers are thought to be generally increasing, with the most steady positive numbers being reported in Eastern and Southern Africa. However, this is only good news if the poaching ceases; if it continues, their wobbly population status will fall to the opposite side, and quickly. A female elephant will produce a calf approximately once every five years – they have the longest gestation period of any mammal at 22 months. Population growth in elephants happens extremely slowly.

The Asian elephant population status is much worse. They are classified as “endangered”and their numbers are sickeningly low: 41,410–52,345 worldwide and the population trend is decreasing, mostly due to habitat loss (IUCN) although they do face poaching dangers like their African counterparts.

But there is some good news trickling out of elephant-populated countries. In Namibia (where I spent time in 2008), four poachers were caught in the Caprivi region smuggling tusks across the border from Botswana: “A public tip-off to the wildlife authorities first stated that the men were hunting buffalo and hippo in the area; Colgar Sikopo, Deputy Director of Wildlife Management in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, said an investigation started immediately after they received the alert from the Caprivi Bamunu conservancy that people from the area were involved in illegal hunting,” (http://www.namibian.com.na/news/full-story/archive/2011/july/article/elephant-poachers-caught/). And Kenya is set to destroy some of its stockpiled ivory: “Kenya will next week burn nearly five tonnes of ivory poached in eastern and southern Africa and stockpiled for nearly a decade; the 4.967 tonnes (10,950 pounds) of elephant tusks were seized in Singapore in 2002, and stored since then at a wildlife rangers training centre in eastern Kenya (the tusks originated in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia),” (http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/07/18/stash-of-ivory-set-to-be-burned/45770/).

I’m choosing to focus on the positives, while remaining vigilant about the negative reality. There are many good things happening in this battle; for instance the recent implementation of DNA technology has given authorities a competitive advantage because it enables them to track the origination of tusks in an effort to study poaching trends. I can only hope that more people will realize how valuable these species are. I am unable to visualize a world without them. But elephants are not the only ones we stand to lose. Take some time to poke around the IUCN’s Red List. It’s frightening just how many animals and plants are dangerously close to disappearing forever. That’s FOREVER, folks. I am hoping to make another trek across the Atlantic to study more wildlife in the very near future… I want to see as much of it as I can, exactly where it’s supposed to be, just in case we can’t preserve it in time.

Here is a slideshow of some photos from my time in Namibia. Enjoy.

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