Amid an unprecedented spike in African elephant poaching, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last week passed two motions it hopes will bolster protection for elephants and the park rangers who look after them.
The motions were approved without debate at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea. (Related: "In War to Save Elephants, Rangers Appeal for Aid.")
The highest recorded rate of elephant poaching in a decade occurred in 2011, with tens of thousands of the animals slaughtered, their ivory smuggled out of East African seaports en route to East Asia. A 1989 CITES treaty banned international trade in elephant ivory.
One motion calls on all countries with African elephants to "prioritize the protection and conservation of elephant populations" and to ensure adequate legislation, penalties, and incentive programs for local people living among elephants.
Mary Rice, head of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, said by email that she has concerns about the elephant-protection motion, which "does not call for curbing the ongoing international illegal trade in ivory through coordination with key authorities such as INTERPOL."
"This is crucial for tackling illegal wildlife trade, which is serious transnational organized crime."
In the second motion, Africa's rangers asked the IUCN leadership "to encourage member states, governments, civil society, and local and international NGOs and foundations to provide support for the initiative of improved wildlife-resource protection."
The IUCN also made the unusual move of calling for a "high-level" meeting of conservationists as soon as possible to "recommend urgent measures" to stop the killing of elephants. (See pictures of ivory poaching in National Geographic magazine.)
"Road Is Long" for Protecting Rangers
Tim Snow, whose organization, the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), sponsored the motion to fund new training programs and equipment for rangers, said he’s delighted that the IUCN has recognized the issue of protecting rangers.
But, he said, "The crux is that the IUCN motion has merely exposed the problem and elevated it to international awareness levels."
Already this year, increasingly well-armed and violent poachers have killed dozens of rangers in Africa, many of whom lack adequate training or equipment with which to respond.
"We don't just need more guns, we don't need escalating warfare—we need more trained rangers on the ground, so you can let people qualified to deal with the problem deal with it," Snow said.
"That should be the status quo in all conservation areas, not just [those] with rhinos and elephants," he added.
The first step, he said, will be for the GRAA to work with IUCN's regional offices to survey the current standard of ranger training in their areas, and then begin to work out what needs to be improved.
But helping out with the survey will likely be the IUCN’s only financial contribution to keeping rangers safe, Snow said.
"We as rangers in GRAA will have to continue to fight for the support we need.
"The load is still heavy, and the road is long. And the problem is real."
Cameroon Boosting Ranger Force
At least one government isn't waiting for new ranger training programs.
Cameroon has already padded its ranger force and increased the days of a ranger's military training from 45 to 120, Ngole Philip Ngwese, Cameroon's minister of forestry and wildlife, said during a press briefing last week in Jeju. About 500 rangers will soon be graduating from that course.
The boost is in response to an incident in January, when "poachers of a different class, extraordinarily violent, well equipped and well trained" entered Cameroon's Bouba Ndjidah National Park on horses and camels, Ngwese said.
The Sudanese poachers, individually skilled in killing elephants and removing their ivory, slayed 200 animals. (See a graphic of where ivory poaching occurs in Africa.)
The ten rangers, or "ecoguards," on duty could not stop the surprise attack, and the government had to call in elite members of the army who drove out the poachers within a month and are still monitoring the situation.
"Our ecoguards are not as trained and equipped as these people who came to massacre the elephants—obviously they had the upper hand," Ngwese said.
The increased ranger training will also ideally save human lives—between two to three ecoguards are killed on duty each year in Cameroon.
Local People Need Incentives
The poachers who invaded Cameroon were also successful because they could melt in among the local people, to whom they gave meat from the killed elephants, Ngwese said.
But some locals also saw the elephant deaths "as a relief," he said.
That's because elephants sometimes wander outside park boundaries, destroying villagers' crops and homes and even killing people.
That's "something we in the West have to keep in mind," said Matt Lewis, senior program officer for African Species Conservation at World Wildlife Fund.
"I always tell people, put yourself in their shoes"—a rural villager may have to walk several miles to a watering hole, only to be killed by an elephant, he said.
"It's easy to love [elephants] from afar, [but] it's a lot more difficult when they're your neighbors."
That's why it's key that the motion to protect elephants also calls upon "African elephant range states to ensure that local communities reap benefits as well as bearing the costs of living with elephants," Lewis noted.
But IUCN’s role in working with countries to create incentives for people to live with elephants "is a bit more tricky," Lewis said.
"IUCN doesn't have any power to make sure this really happens. What IUCN has done in the past on similar issues is to develop standards, or 'best practices' for conservation, which they can then encourage the [African elephant] range states to follow," he said.
One example, Lewis suggested, could be setting up guidelines for a mechanism to share profits from tourism or sustainable hunting of elephants with communities that live around protected areas.
Preempting Elephant Conflicts
Cameroon's Ngwese also noted that governments need to take steps to preempt elephant-human conflicts.
He said he's "really impressed" by a new initiative in Kenya that fences large tracts of protected areas to keep elephants from straying onto private land.
Fencing is "incredibly expensive," said Lewis, although "it's possible to fence around populated areas preventing elephants from entering but still allowing them to move where they need to go, and protect people at the same time."
Ngwese said he's "looking forward" to putting in place similar measures.
Overall, there's a lot to be done to make sure governments and organizations put the motions into action, the GRAA's Snow said.
IUCN Motions "Pathetic," Expert Says
Because IUCN is an organization of voluntary members, its motions lack the teeth of an international treaty—they serve primarily to raise awareness.
That doesn't sit well with some conservationists, including Nairobi-based Richard Leakey, a former grantee of the National Geographic Society, of which National Geographic News is a division.
"That’s the best IUCN can come up with?" Leakey said with irritation.
He said the language of the motions is couched in "pathetic" diplomatic terms that do not have any real power to halt the decline in elephants, which, according to Leakey, may be gone in some African countries in five years.
"We're sitting about piddling while Rome burns," he said. "I mean really, why don't they come up with a resolution that all member states should never again trade in any ivory because it's a disaster for the species?
"It seems to be a classic example of why international bodies like IUCN and CITES have served their purpose," Leakey added. "Just like at the grocery store, when your shelf life is over, you're discarded."