The photograph above, generously donated by Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble, is of an elephant named Satao, a magnificent bull elephant, who lived in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. Weighing in at over six tons, he was the largest known land mammal on earth and nearing his fifth decade. He was one of the few remaining “big tuskers,” a group of elephants whose tusks weigh over 100 pounds apiece. But even in this crowd Satao stood out; his massive tusks reached a length of 6.5 feet and touched the ground. This “magnificent, dusty behemoth,” as Mr. Deeble described him, was a global icon, a spectacular symbol of a species whose evolutionary history dates back thirty-five million years.[i] But it was likely his legendary status that brought him to a premature and tragic end.
Paula Kahumbu, Director of Wildlife Direct, notes that in early June of 2014 Kenya was swirling with worried rumors of Satao’s death. She “suspected for days that Satao was dead.”[ii] He was well monitored by both Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). During the month of May, he was seen at least nine times by air, in addition to numerous ground sightings. But he and several other bulls had ventured to the boundary of the park, probably to escape the rains, and they were in dangerous territory, an area known as a “poaching hotspot.” He was last seen on May 19th.[iii]
During aerial reconnaissance on June 2nd, the carcass of a giant tusker was spotted by Richard Moller, Co-founder and Chief Conservation Officer the of Tsavo Trust. “I knew instinctively in my gut this was Satao, but there was a tiny chance that I was wrong,” he said.[iv] Later, a ground team confirmed his worst suspicions. The remains were indeed Satao’s. He had been killed by a poisonous arrow on May 30th. The poachers mutilated his body, hacking off his face and removing his tusks. Moller poignantly wrote of Satao’s passing: “[a] great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.“[v] Satao was victim of the merciless and bloody ivory trade.
Poaching: The Numbers
It’s tempting to think that Satao’s tragic story is unique and that most African elephants are relatively safe from the ivory trade. But that would be wrong. The Great Elephant Census, the first pan-African census in forty years, is complete, and the numbers are not good. We have lost 1/3 of savanna elephants in 7 years. The population declined in 15 of the 18 countries surveyed, and the final count for all 18 countries 352,271, which represents 93% of the savanna elephants in these countries.[vi] CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) released a press release in the fall of 2017.[vii] The research indicated that there has been a gradual decline in poaching in eastern and southern Africa, while poaching remains high in central Africa. The press release further notes, “The overall trends in the poaching of African elephants show that the sharp increase in the levels of illegal killing of elephants witnessed since 2006, and peaking in 2011, was first halted, then stabilized, and is now in decline, but at levels that remain too high when viewed continent-wide, with overall elephant population likely to have declined in 2016.”
There is still an illegal trade that drives poaching, but the good news is that many markets are set to shut down. China’s ivory ban went into effect in 2018, and Hong Kong announced it will ban all ivory sales by 2021. The United States has a near-total ban on the sale of ivory due to an Executive Order signed by President Obama in 2016.
Poaching: The Effects
Elephants are a “keystone species,” which means their natural behaviors play a vital role in maintaining the biodiversity and health of their ecosystems. These natural behaviors include:
- Clearing trees in the savannas, which allows the grasslands to flourish into a food source for other herbivores.
- Creating pathways to water sources, which are used by both humans and animals, and digging water holes, which are used by other species.
- Unearthing salt licks, which other species use to access necessary minerals.
- Transporting and spreading seeds in their dung. Elephants don’t digest much of what they consume (only about 50) and that turns out to be a good thing. The undigested seeds are dispersed in their dung as they travel ensuring a continual supply of new seeds.
- Fertilizing the soil with their dung.
- Providing a food source for other species who forage through elephant dung for nutrients. The dung beetle and baboons are examples.
“The illicit wildlife trade and the resultant large-scale poaching of elephants and rhino across Africa is a big issue affecting the tourism industry,” says Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris.[ix] Tourism is a primary source of income for Africa. In 2012, it added approximately 6.5 billion dollars to the economy, and much of that income was derived from animal tourism.[ii] Many local economies will suffer an economic downturn if these animals become extinct. These animals are great natural resources and must be preserved for current and future generations of Africans and for the visitors who travel great distances to see these animals in their magnificent homeland.
Funding International Crime and Terrorism
Consumer demand fuels poaching, but who profits from it? The answer is unsettling. Criminal and terrorist organizations are the primary beneficiaries of illegal wildlife trafficking.
The Washington Post reports that “[i]llegal wildlife trafficking generates an estimated $19 billion per year – more than the illicit trafficking of small arms, diamonds, gold, or oil.”[x] Many of these groups are affiliated with Al Qaeda and include “al-Shabaab in Somalia, The Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa (headed by the notorious Joseph Kony), and Bobo Haram in Nigera.”[xi] The groups trade ivory for arms with deadly effects. One example is the attack that took place on September 21, 2013 at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Gunmen entered the mall killing 67 people and wounding another 175. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that The Lord’s Resistance Army pockets between four to twelve million dollars a year from ivory trafficking.[xii] Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says, “There is growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa…fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking.”[xiii]
The link between poaching and terrorism is also being recognized on the federal level. In 2014, the White House released an implementation strategy for combating illegal wildlife trafficking, which they maintain is a national security issue: “The Strategy will strengthen U.S. leadership on addressing the serious and urgent conservation and global security threat posed by illegal trade in wildlife.”[xiv]
Kathyrn Garrigan of the African Wildlife Foundation notes, “What African governments are realizing and what the U.S. government has realized is that this is not just a conservation issue anymore because the money from this ivory is being used to fund terrorist activities and destabilize regions in Africa.”[xv]
In sum, elephants and rhinos are being driven to extinction to help fund terrorist organizations’ illegal operations. If we stop poaching, we eliminate a significant source of funding for African terrorism and help maintain governmental stability.
In the past decade, about 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty.[xvi] These rangers risk their lives to protect these animals and increasingly find themselves on the front lines of industrial-scale, mechanized warfare.
Such language is not extreme. The poachers who entered Bouba Njida National Park in Cameroon in November of 2014 are becoming more typical. They carried “AK-47s, bags of ammunition, heavy machine guns, and two mortars.”[xvii] In three months-time, they mercilessly slaughtered six hundred and fifty elephants.
The adage is true: Extinction is forever. If we allow elephants to disappear, they will be gone forever. What will we lose when they are gone?
Our understanding of the complexity of the emotion and social lives of elephants are are relatively recent with most taking place over the past decade. However, in this short time period, scientists have discovered that elephants are far more intelligent than was previously realized.
Here’s what they have learned:
Elephants form tightly-knit social groups (both males and females), are likely self-aware, mourn and sometimes even bury their dead, cooperate with each other for protection, care, and problem-solving, creatively use tools, communicate with each other through stomach grumblings, chirps and trumpets, and are very empathetic, comforting each other in defeats and losses.[xviii]
If they disappear, we will lose this treasure trove of emotional and cognitive intelligence.
In sum, the extinction of elephants would have cascading on ecosystems, the species that depend on these ecosystems for their survival, and the people who depend on these ecosystems and animals for their livelihoods. Poaching destabilizes economies and costs human lives. Elephants are intelligent, social beings who deserve for their sake, but when we protect them, we also protect ourselves, conserve the environment, and allow other species to flourish.
[i]. Mark Deeble, “Satao: Last of the Great Tuskers,” A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa. http://markdeeble.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/last-of-the-great-tuskers/. Accessed January 29, 2015.
[ii]. Paula Kahumbu, “Kenya’s Biggest Elephant Killed by Poachers, The Guardian,June 13, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/africa-wild/2014/jun/13/kenyas-biggest-elephant-killed-by-poachers. Accessed January 29, 2015.
[iii]. Information about sightings of Satao and his movements taken from Incident Report, Tsavo Trust, June 13, 2015. http://tsavotrust.org/news/?category=Breaking+News. Accessed January 29, 2015.
[iv]. Cited in Kahumbu, “Kenya’s Biggest Elephant Killed by Poachers.”
[v]. Jenna Lacurci, Paying the Ivory Price: Elephant Icon ‘Satao’ Killed by Poachers,” Nature World News, June 17, 2014. http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/7620/20140617/paying-the-ivory-price-elephant-icon-satao-killed-by-poachers.htm. Accessed January 29, 2015.
[vi]. “Great Elephant Census Final Results.” http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-reportAccessed: March 12, 2017). Though a more comprehensive study needs to be done, a recent study found that desert elephants declined by 62%. (Please add footnote: Fiona Maisels, et. al. “Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa,” PLOS One, March 4, 2014. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0059469. Accessed March 10, 2017.
[vii].Press Release. CITES: African Elephant Poaching Down, Ivory Seizures Up and Hit Record High. https://cites.org/eng/news/pr/African_elephant_poaching_down_ivory_seizures_up_and_hit_record_high_24102017. Accessed June 14, 2018.
[ix]. Sharon Van Wyk, “Poaching – Tourism – Poaching’s Silent Witness,” Conservation Action Trust, December 2, 2013. http://conservationaction.co.za/media-articles/tourism-poachings-silent-witness/. Accessed March 18, 2016.
[x]. Johan Bergenas and Monica Median, “Break the Link Between Terrorism Funding and Poaching,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/break-the-link-between-terrorism-funding-and-poaching/2014/01/31/6c03780e-83b5-11e3-bbe5-6a2a3141e3a9_story.html. Accessed February 17, 2015.
[xi]. Ashish Kumar Sen, “Terrorists Slaughter African Elephants, Use Ivory to Finance Operations,” The Washington Times, November 13, 2013. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/13/terrorists-slaughter-african-elephants-use-ivory-t/?page=all. Accessed February 17, 2015.
[xii]. Bryan Harris, “China’s Insatiable Demand for Ivory Fund Terrorism in Africa and Middle East,” South China Morning Post, July 6, 2014. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1547682/ivory-trades-role-funding-african-militants-highlighted-un-report?page=all. Accessed February 20, 2015.
[xiii]. Bryan Harris, “China’s Insatiable Demand for Ivory Fund Terrorism in Africa and Middle East,” South China Morning Post, July 6, 2014. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1547682/ivory-trades-role-funding-african-militants-highlighted-un-report?page=all. Accessed February 20, 2015.
[xiv]. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. ACT SHEET: National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking & Commercial Ban on Trade in Elephant Ivory,” February 11, 2014. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/11/fact-sheet-national-strategy-combating-wildlife-trafficking-commercial-b Accessed February 26, 2015.
[xv]. Ashish Kumar Sen, “Terrorists Slaughter African Elephants, Use Ivory to Finance Operations,” The Washington Times, November 13, 2013. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/13/terrorists-slaughter-african-elephants-use-ivory-t/?page=all. Accessed March 18, 2016.
[xvii]. Luca Zenetti, “Elephant Watch.” The New Yorker, May 11, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/11/elephant-watch. Accessed April 2, 2016.
[xviii]. Ferris Jabr, “The Science is In: Elephants are Even Smarter Than We Realized,” Scientific American, February 26, 2014. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-is-in-elephants-are-even-smarter-than-we-realized-video/?print=true. Accessed February 18, 2015.