Saving the African Elephant

As African nations and conservationists struggle to stop elephant poaching, a counter-intuitive idea is gaining a lot of ground: The best way to save elephants might be to hunt them.

Chinese demand for ivory is fueling illegal elephant hunting throughout Africa, despite widespread conservation efforts.  Kenya is the hardest hit, with the number of elephants killed doubling from 2011 to 2012.  But some countries in southern Africa take a seemingly radical approach: The government allows legal hunting, and elephant numbers are steadily rising there.

“There are sufficient numbers in some populations for regulated hunting to be sustainable,” said Rob Slotow, a professor a director of the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Legally hunting elephants is expensive.  And ivory from these African hunting safaris can be legally brought into the United States.  A fourteen day expedition with Chifuti Hunting Safaris charges over $20,000 for the trip itself, plus a trophy fee for each animal taken, including over $14,000 for a bull elephant.  On top of that, hunters pay trophy packaging rates, government fees and for a CITES export permit that certifies the trophies were legally obtained.

This is where in some cases, some say hunting might help.

There are currently 500,000 African elephants left in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The WWF lists the species as vulnerable, meaning they face “a high risk of extinction in the wild.”  And most conservation groups agree that the situation is urgent.

According to iWorry, a campaign sponsored by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to protect elephants, thirty-six thousand elephants were illegally killed for their ivory last year.  That amounts to one elephant dead every fifteen minutes.  The organization estimates that at the current rate, elephants could be extinct in the wild by 2025.

Conservationists say an entire herd can feel the repercussions of killing just one elephant.  Unlike Asian elephants, both male and female African elephants grow tusks.

Killing females is especially devastating to the species.  Elephants are slow breeders with a gestational period of twenty-two months, over twice as long as a human pregnancy.  Infants nurse for up to four years.  When a poacher kills a mother, it’s often a death sentence for the baby as well.

And female African elephants travel in herds, unlike the more solitary adult males.  Because tusks continue to grow throughout an elephant’s life, older females have larger, more valuable tusks.  They also have more valuable memories.  Matriarchs can lead their packs to remote watering holes and feeding grounds during droughts, but when an older female is killed, the mental map to those potentially life-saving locations dies with her.

But hunters, unlike poachers, hunt selectively.  While poachers kill indiscriminately, shooting any animal with tusks, under most circumstances, game departments allow paying hunters to kill only male elephants.

And the money hunters pay goes back to local economies.

According to the World Bank, in 2010 nearly seventy percent of sub-Saharan Africans lived on less than $2 a day. For people struggling to make ends meet, their own survival takes precedence over preserving the natural world.  And a herd of elephants traipsing through gardens can be a nuisance and a threat to their livelihood.

Protecting endangered species is a luxury individuals in the poorest nations cannot always afford.

Rapid population growth and climate change bring animals and humans closer, often pitting them in conflict with each other over resources.

But hunters say that the high cost of elephant hunting safaris brings money to local economies, providing incentives to protect wildlife from illegal poachers.

Craig Boddington is an avid outdoorsman who frequently writes about hunting and says he has hunted about a dozen African elephants.  For him, legal hunting and conservation go hand in hand, especially in areas where tourism is scarce.

Boddington compared this model to that in the United States.  “In this country our entire wildlife management system is funded by hunters and it’s been that way for more than 100 years,” he said.

According to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, legal hunting in the United States in 2001 contributed to over 575,000 jobs and generated nearly $3 trillion dollars in federal tax revenue.

“It’s more putting value on the elephant,” Boddington said.  “Photo safaris are wonderful, a great adventure.  But photo safaris are done in national parks, they’re sanctuaries.  Hunting safaris are done in much more marginal areas and hunters are willing to do that.”

But conservationists are quick to point out that hunting is not always the best solution.  And even hunters like Boddington say it won’t work in every country.

Hunting can only work if there is a strong conservation infrastructure in place.  In Central and East Africa where elephant numbers are drastically declining due to poaching, that infrastructure doesn’t exist.

Poaching is a market-driven business, and demand from Asia and the Middle East is strong.  In other words, it pays well.   Really well.  According to the African Wildlife Foundation, the street price for illegal ivory in China is about $1000 a pound, and rising.  As conservation efforts intercept more smuggled ivory, the prices go up. The Animal Welfare Institute reported “the price of ivory is increasing so rapidly that some people apparently are buying it as an investment commodity.”

The rush for ivory has hit central and East Africa especially hard.

Kenya is one of the most stable countries in East Africa and the economic hub of the region.  The country has forty-eight national parks and reserves.  The Kenyan Tourism Ministry reported that around 1.7 million tourists visited the country in 2010.

Kenya’s current conservation model is centered on tourists and their cameras.  That country has had a total ban on hunting since 1989 after a decade in which the country’s wild elephant populations declined from 65,000 to just 17,000.

But despite the total ban on elephant hunting, poaching has continued to increase. The Star, a Kenyan daily newspaper, reported last month that poachers had killed over 800 elephants in Kenya since 2011. The country’s location is partly to blame.

Twenty years ago, there were 100,000 elephants in DR Congo.  That number has declined to 7000 today, according to the WWF.

And last year, twenty-two elephants, an entire family, were gunned down in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  According to the New York Times, park officials believe the gunmen who shot the animals from a helicopter and made off with over $1 million in ivory, were Ugandan military.

Rudi van Aarde, chair of the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, is strongly opposed to legal hunting.

He says the biggest threats facing elephants are the “improper governance at all levels that allows criminal elements to provide to the needs of international terrorist bands.”

“Conservation should not be about anti-poaching.  That should be the responsibility of police forces, not conservation authorities,” he added.

But the reasons behind poaching are also getting more sinister, and government and police forces are often complicit.

Elephants have joined diamonds, gold and other minerals on the list of resources bankrolling the continent’s deadly wars.

Government soldiers in Kenya, Uganda and Congo have been arrested for poaching or ivory possession.

According to a report by the Elephant Action League, al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group operating in Somalia, brings in between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from ivory poaching.

Western governments have taken notice of the connection between the ivory trade and insecurity.  Stopping poaching is a major initiative of the Clinton Foundation.  Last November, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the Partnership Meeting on Wildlife Trafficking.

“Park rangers are being killed. And we have good reason to believe that rebel militias are players in a worldwide ivory market worth millions and millions of dollars a year,” she said.  “It is one thing to be worried about the traditional poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts. It’s something else when you’ve got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife,” she added.

 When it comes to endangered or threatened species, the hunting argument is still a hard sell.

Last year, King Juan Carlos of Spain broke his hip while legally hunting elephants in Botswana.  Public outrage demanded the monarch be removed from his position as honorary president of the Spanish chapter of the World Wildlife Fund.

The WWF, one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, supports legal elephant hunting under certain circumstances.

“We recognize that trophy hunting is controversial.  It is rarely our preferred option, but we do have to work within the realities and challenges of conservation on the ground.  For endangered species, trophy hunting should only be considered when all other options have been explored,” the WWF US said in a statement.

But the very idea of hunting threatened species appalls many in the conservation community, including Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

“How can one justify hunting down and punishing poachers for killing an elephant to make ends meet when some rich person from the West can pay to kill,” Sheldrick wrote in an email.

Sheldrick and her late husband founded the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a renowned organization based in Nairobi, Kenya that takes in orphaned baby elephants and cares for them until they are ready to return to the wild.  She said she has worked closely with elephants for fifty years and has raised over 170 orphaned infants.

She estimates that as elephant populations diminish in East Africa, poachers will set their sights further south in countries hunters claim have healthy elephant population.

Sheldrick summed it up well.  In the war on poaching, “China ultimately holds the key.”