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Wildlife Watch

Elephant Poachers Take Aim at South Africa’s Famed Refuge

Recent elephant killings in Kruger National Park raise fears that South Africa is now in the crosshairs of the illegal ivory trade.

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Elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park haven’t been targeted by ivory poachers—until now. Since May 2014, 19 have been killed in the iconic park.

After years of being regarded as an unassailable haven for wildlife, South Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park has been hit by elephant poaching. In May 2014, the first killing of an elephant for its tusks in ten years was reported in the park. By mid-October 2015, 19 Kruger elephants had been killed for ivory. Twelve of those were killed in September and October alone.

This prompted several prominent conservationists to warn that South Africa’s parks are at high risk of being targeted for ivory in the near future. “South Africa can expect elephant poaching to increase dramatically in the Kruger Park,” said wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dereck Joubert.

Has the elephant poaching epidemic that has plagued other African countries in recent years now overtaken South Africa?

South Africa can expect elephant poaching to increase dramatically in the Kruger Park. 
Dereck Joubert conservationist

Since 2008, Kruger has been a target for rhino poachers, who mainly come from across the border in Mozambique. Some 800 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns between January and September of this year, bringing the total to 4,635 rhinos killed since 2007. That’s nearly a fifth of the continent-wide population.

Kruger had some 17,000 elephants in 2014, according to Sam Ferreira, the park’s large mammal ecologist. Most of the elephants killed this year have been in the northern Pafuri area, bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Elephant populations in both countries have experienced heavy casualties of late.

Mozambique has lost half its elephants during the past five years, according to recent data from the ongoing Great Elephant Census, an observation study funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's investment company, Vulcan Inc., to count more than 90 percent of the world's elephants. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is reeling from a spate of macabre elephant poisonings by cyanide.  

According to a recent genetic study, most of the poached ivory has been coming from Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and central Africa. With elephants becoming scarcer in these countries, the poaching scourge has nowhere to go but south.

South African authorities have anticipated that elephant poaching was going to “hit us like an avalanche as early as January next year,” Hector Magome, of conservation services at South African National Parks (SANparks), told Business Day last year. “Given what is going on in the rest of Africa, it is inevitable that South Africa’s elephants will eventually be targeted.”

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Poachers shot this rhino in Kruger in November 2013. More than 4,600 rhinos have been killed in South Africa for their horns since 2007, and only about 25,000 of the animals are left in the wild in Africa.

Making matters worse is the fact that the ivory trade “appears to be professionalising fast, with heavy involvement of police, border guard and political criminal networks,” according to a report published last year by the animal advocacy group Born Free USA. “Given the ease of rhino poaching in South Africa,” the report says, “fears of serious, professionalised ivory poaching in the Kruger Park are well founded.”

Referring to the elephant poaching epidemic elsewhere in the continent, William Mabasa, a Kruger spokesman, said, “We cannot allow this destabilization of our keystone species to continue further.”

Heads in the Sand?

Not everyone agrees that elephant poaching is going to be a serious problem for Kruger, but if the rhino situation is any indicator, things need to be monitored closely.

Mabasa says he’s “confident that the dedication and efforts which our rangers and partners in the security sector have displayed towards the fight against rhino will prevail over this latest problem.”

Zimbabwe is reeling from macabre elephant poisonings by cyanide.   

South Africa’s environment minister Edna Molewa hasn’t expressed much concern about elephant poaching. Last year, she said, “We did an ivory once-off sale, and elephant poaching has not been a problem since.”

The sale occurred in July 2008, when China and Japan were given permission by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international organization that regulates the wildlife trade, to buy 108 tons of ivory from four southern African countries. In those countries—Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa—elephant populations were regarded as relatively healthy and well managed.

Contrary to the minister’s views, it is widely held that the sale has fueled the current poaching crisis. A 2008 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit headquartered in London, showed that demand for ivory increased every year after an earlier experimental sale, in 1999, to Japan—and that it spiked after the 2008 sale.  

At the 2008 sale, China and Japan paid an average of $71 per pound ($157 per kilo) from the southern African states. Since then, the price of ivory China sells from its legal stockpile has increased almost tenfold, to $681 per pound ($1,500 per kilo).

Michelle Henley, principal researcher for Elephants Alive, a research group that has collected data on Kruger’s elephant populations for more than two decades, said that until now poachers have targeted the “higher value of rhino horn compared to ivory, which seems to have lulled many into a false sense of security.”

She said her research team had predicted that “it would be only a matter of time before poachers would turn to elephants for ivory.”

That time, she believes, has come.

Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for Conservation Action Trust, which promotes widespread and impartial investigation and reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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