Category Archives: Elephants

An Iconic Species at Risk, Part I

(Photo courtesy of detlaphiltdic.blogspot.com)

Did you know that there are fewer than 3500 tigers remaining in the world? In 1900 there were 100,000 tigers across Asia. Many factors have contributed to their decimation, like increasing human/animal conflict and habitat loss, but most recently poaching is the main reason for their frighteningly scarce numbers. Can you imagine a world without them? Or without some of the other amazing creatures that share their home in Asia, like elephants? I would suggest you try to wrap your mind around that possibility, because it is a very real one. But there are efforts underway to stop the loss of tigers and other species, some that involve forensic science at its best.

A fantastic video about tiger poaching can be watched here: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers

If you don’t want to watch it (although I strongly suggest you do; it’s relatively short and very informative) I’ve summarized it below.

In 2010, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found themselves face to face with tiger poachers while they were setting up camera traps in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. The poachers fled, but left behind them horrible destruction in the form of a tigress and her cubs, poisoned.   According to WCS, tigers are “poached for their skin, bone, teeth, and claws, and the slaughter of even one or two breeding females could have a terrible impact on the population; the poaching gangs can be so ruthless that they often kill elephants for their tusks, and then poison and leave behind the carcass for tigers to feed on”. Two very lucrative birds with one stone.

In this case, a composite sketch was developed by the Thai police. Anti-poaching efforts were increased in the form of 40 new rangers trained to combat the illegal wildlife trade. That summer there were several armed conflicts between the rangers and the poachers, eventually leading to the capture of the same poachers believed responsible for the deaths of the tigress and her cubs. Evidence in the form of photos found on the poachers’ confiscated cell phones shows them proudly displaying the tigers they had killed.

One of the cell phone images that convicted the poachers (photo courtesy of here-we-roar.org)

The poachers argued that the tigers in the photos were from unprotected areas, and thus could not be used to prosecute them. But when one of their cell phone pictures was compared to a photo of a tiger captured by WCS’s camera traps that had later been found dead, a match was confirmed.

“Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, and researchers used them to confirm a positive ID; charged with the deaths of four tigers, the two poachers face a lengthy time away, but unfortunately the demand remains,” (WCS, 2011).

While doing research for this post I also came across a great article on this issue; you can read it here:  http://missinterpreting.com/2011/10/17/smooth-criminals-the-sophisticated-tiger-trade/

In the article the writer lists several disheartening facts put forth by Mark Carwardine – a BBC Presenter, Zoologist, Conservationist, Wildlife Photographer and Writer:

  • Two tiger subspecies, the Bali and Javan tiger, are already extinct with a third subspecies – the Caspian tiger – yet to be confirmed. It has been claimed that the South China tiger may become extinct within the next decade.
  • The tiger population is dwindling because of hunting by poachers, being killed for clashing with human dwellers and forest workers and by having their habitats destroyed. 93% of the tiger’s habitat has disappeared in the last century.
  • Four tigers are killed every week and China is responsible for the most tiger poaching activity. Their trust in the medicinal effects of tiger teeth, skin and bones is based on ancient beliefs which are not backed up by scientific evidence. The Chinese also cash in on the billions of blood money yielded by the tiger trade to sell tiger body parts as food, clothes or souvenirs.
  • Tiger conservation is extremely complex because of the intricacies of the tiger trade and the lack of effective support from politicians and police forces. (Monica Sarkar, 2011)

If these facts don’t upset you, if the video above doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, if the thought of such iconic creatures as tigers disappearing forever doesn’t motivate you to some sort of action, then you are lucky. These issues keep me up at night. They keep me from blissful ignorance and a good night’s sleep. They make my head spin with thoughts on how to stop the destruction. I suggest you watch the video again (I’m even posting the link here so that you don’t have to scroll up: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers ) and let it sink in.

The tiger whose stripes matched those of the tiger in the poachers' cell phone pics (courtesy of http://www.wcs.org)

This is what I’m passionate about and what I hope to inspire others to be interested in as well. We can stop this, if we act now.

More on tigers and poaching to come…

 

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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)

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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Huge Illegal Shipment of Elephant Tusks Seized in Thailand

Follow this link to read the article:

Illegal Ivory Seized, April 2011

In 2008, I volunteered with Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) in Namibia, West Africa. We built “elephant-proof” wells for villagers

In front of the well in-progress

and tracked and monitored the local desert elephant herds in the area. On one of our excursions to find a particular herd, we stumbled upon an elephant carcass.

All that remained

Bones bleached by sun and sand

One of the first things I noticed was the lack of tusks. They were nowhere to be found. One of our local guides told us that the elephant had most likely died of old age, and that officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism had taken the tusks for safekeeping, so that they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Although poaching is not a huge problem in that area, in 2007, the African governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were granted permission to pursue a one-off sale of their stock-piled ivory, 18 years after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the ivory trade. The money would be used by the countries in various ways, including funding for conservation efforts. However, opposers felt that this would only increase the rates of illegal poaching, and some countries, including Kenya, condemned the sales. One year later, standing over the remains of one of Namibia’s greatest tourism assets, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what had happened to that elephant, and where the tusks had gone. What had her life been like? Where was her family? Had they mourned her passing? Had she died a “natural” death, or did she fall victim to poachers?

It sickens me to think that in 2011 there are still those who value a carved ivory statue over the life that provided it. That there are individuals willing to spend thousands of dollars (and in some cases, much more) for a dust-collector that they can display in their homes, with no regard for the animal whose life was taken so that the person could have it. But I am heartened by increased investigatory efforts, and by each and every confiscation of illegal ivory and subsequent prosecution of the people responsible. Each one is a victory in the war on wildlife. My hope is that it will continue… each one sends a message: we will not tolerate this senseless killing and lack of respect for wildlife.