Elephant Calves Await Fate as Africa Seeks to Save Species

The world is losing the war on ivory poaching, a key finding at Botswana-led summit on elephants and wildlife trade.

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This young male elephant languishing in China’s Taiyuan zoo was imported from Zimbabwe in 2012. Tom de Meulenaer, chief scientist of the CITES Secretariat, says capturing wild elephants and selling them abroad is “a welfare issue.”

For trade in wild elephants, Zimbabwe is “open to doing business with the whole world,” said Saviour Kasukuwere, the country’s minister for environment, water, and climate, in an exclusive interview with National Geographic here.

Kasukuwere—who had come to Botswana, along with other international delegates, to participate in the African Elephant Summit on March 23, followed on March 25 by the Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade—was responding to a question about Zimbabwe’s export plans for baby elephants being held captive in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. (See “Undercover Photos: Plight of Zimbabwe’s Captured Baby Elephants.”)

While this issue wasn’t on the agenda at either of the meetings—intended to review progress made in stemming the illegal trade in ivory and endangered species and make recommendations for future action—it was very much the elephant in the room as delegates discussed the political and moral implications of selling wild elephants abroad.

Kasukuwere asserted that the Hwange calves are not meant for export but will be sent to other parts of the country to balance elephant populations internally.

“That’s a normal thing,” he said. “We transfer animals from an area of greater concentration to areas of low concentration. Now and again we capture these animals to try and balance the populations.”

According to a paper published by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Climate titled “Zimbabwe’s Position on Live Sales of Elephants and Other Wildlife Species,” Hwange National Park holds some 54,000 elephants, nearly 40,000 more than the 5,600-square-mile reserve is said to be capable of sustaining.

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This breeding herd of elephants lives in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, not far from the town of Kasane, where delegates met this week to discuss the fate of the species.

The latest figures from the Elephant Database—a website that shows the most comprehensive and current data on elephant populations Africa-wide—puts the Hwange population at 34,322 from a census in 2007.

“We have lots of them,” Kasukuwere said. “If you want some in London, then please tell us.

“We have a compelling case of having to use our resources in a sustainable way to fund the upkeep of our staff, who have a duty to protect the elephants and our wildlife.”

The minister made it clear that Zimbabwe “has not sold any [elephants]—yet.”

Poaching Unabated; Elephant Numbers Still Falling

At the African Elephant Summit, CITES representatives presented statistics from the organization’s program for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), which showed that elephant poaching rates between 2013 and 2014 have remained virtually unchanged. (See “100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Study Finds.”)

The MIKE program evaluates relative poaching levels based on the proportion of illegally killed elephants, which is calculated as the number of illegally killed elephants found, divided by the total number of elephant carcasses encountered by patrols or through other means, aggregated by year for each site.

Overall, the representatives said, elephant populations in Africa may now stand at around 434,000, based on estimates in 2012. But considering the extremely high poaching rates during the past three years, this number could now be much lower, given that mortality has outpaced births.

“Clearly we’re still facing a crisis,” Tom de Meulenaer, chief scientist of the CITES Secretariat, told National Geographic. “We have not won the war for elephants. And poaching levels have stagnated at far too high levels in 2014 compared to 2013.

“At the same time,” he said, “there are also signs that we may be moving into a better situation for elephants. There are indications that enforcement—and there has been a serious effort to step up enforcement in a series of countries—is starting to have an effect.

Clearly we’re still facing a crisis. We have not won the war for elephants.
Tom de Meulenaer, chief scientist, CITES

“There are now concerted efforts to talk to those in Asia, particularly China, that invest in illegal ivory to change their minds. These people know exactly what they’re doing.” (Read about the ivory trade in China.)

But Tshekedi Khama, minister for environment, wildlife, and tourism for Botswana, the host of the Kasane gatherings, blamed corruption and a lack of political will for the continuing scourge of poaching in Africa.

Botswana’s elephant population—still robust at an estimated 130,000—has not been seriously undermined by poaching.

“It’s up to Africa to say ‘No!’” Khama said. “We have to say ‘No.’ But as long as corruption is in place, it will take longer than we would like.”

He also pointed to the issue of high demand in China. “The sort of participation we would want from China,” he said, “is to cut any sales of ivory. Once you remove it off the market, and it’s no longer available, the problem is solved.”

“We Want to Get to the Kingpins”

The second gathering in Kasane, the Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, followed up on the 2014 London Declaration by 46 attending countries.

The Kasane Statement—joined by 32 countries, including Vietnam and China—recognizes the efforts made by governments to implement measures called for in London but stresses that more needs to be done.

“This year we are determined to address the financial crimes and money laundering associated with illegal wildlife trade,” said Lord de Mauley, Britain's minister for environment, food, and rural affairs, in a press conference after the meeting.

“We want to get to the kingpins involved, rather than just the poacher on the ground. We need to get to the head of this pernicious trade.”

De Mauley also highlighted renewed efforts to infiltrate the transportation networks that move products around the world. (Read about stemming ivory trade to Asia through shipping ports.)

“There’s a task force set up by Prince William, which will engage the transportation companies—particularly the airlines and the shipping lines—which is crucially important.”

African countries will also devote more attention to the need to benefit local people in poaching areas, he said—“giving people a reason to support the fight against poaching rather than having to rely on it for their livelihoods.”

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This young elephant, separated from its mother in Hwange National Park, is one of scores being held there, possibly waiting to be shipped abroad or moved elsewhere in Zimbabwe.

Critics of high-level conferences like the Kasane meetings say they often achieve little more than promises from some of the participating states.

But Botswana’s Khama emphasized that sitting around talking and observing “is not the agenda. We need to keep the pressure on.

“We will not be reviewing progress only once a year,” he said. “We need to have a continuous ongoing review to see how we’re performing and how we’re delivering.”

Delivering would mean being able to point to a decline in elephant poaching in 2015 and beyond.

One way to help achieve that is to bolster job-creating wildlife tourism so that local people can provide for themselves without resorting to poaching—especially in a country like Zimbabwe, which still has thousands of elephants. (See “Zimbabwe Planning to Increase Its Sales of Baby Elephants, Sources Say.”)

“Visitors Will Vote With Their Feet”

In an interview in Kasane after the meetings, Bill Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, a global conservation organization, said that if Zimbabwe carries out its plan to sell wild-caught animals, it may lose out on more than a few elephants.

“Visitors will, in my opinion, vote with their feet by choosing not to visit Zimbabwe’s national parks, which will cause more harm than the short-term cash injection that the government hopes for,” he said.

“I think that government is beginning to feel that whatever revenue we can possibly get out of this,” said Tom Milliken—the elephant and rhino program leader of the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC—during an interview after the conference, “the cost to Zimbabwe’s image [will be great] and the goal of reactivated vibrant tourism is going to be severely damaged.”

We will not export any of our elephants to areas that they were not naturally found in.
Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s minister for environment, wildlife, and tourism

Milliken, who lives in Zimbabwe, added, “I was in Hwange the other day, and tried to ask staff there, and nobody wants to talk about [the captured elephants].”

Milliken says the capture of the baby elephants and their continuing isolation from their herds in a capture facility in Hwange park has “just been a dreadful series of events. I think we all regret it.”

CITES’s De Meulenaer says the capture of a relatively few wild elephants for legal international sale is really an ethical question.  

“It’s a welfare issue, not a conservation issue,” he said in an interview on Monday outside the African Elephant Summit.

Is Zimbabwe Setting a Precedent?

There has been concern, particularly among activists and NGOs, that Zimbabwe may be setting a precedent in Africa that would spur other countries to sell elephants abroad. (Find out why it’s so hard to stop Zimbabwe’s export of baby elephants.)

Environment Minister Khama says Botswana is firmly against this.  

“We’re aware of what our neighbors are doing. Do we like it? No! We don’t like it. I certainly have not heard any other comments from any other countries thinking along that line.

“We will not export any of our elephants to areas that they were not naturally found in,” Khama continued. “Why would I want to subject a species that has been free-roaming into a zoo? It’s not going to happen.”

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