Every year, more than 33,000 African elephants are brutally slaughtered in the continent for their ivory tusks. Over the last three decades, the number of African elephants has shrunk by two thirds to approximately 400,000. There is a very real risk that these elephants, the largest animal walking the planet, would be effectively wiped out within two generations. Fifty years from now, your grandchildren might think that these majestic animals are just part of fairy tales, like unicorns. To be fair, even now, it is a little hard to believe the existence of these generally gentle 13-foot-tall herbivorous mammals.
If you think the threat of extinction of African elephants is exaggerated, consider the fate of their cousin, the Asian elephants. There are less than 50,000 of them alive today, and many are now extinct in places like China, the Middle East and Asia Minor. And to think, a little over 2,300 years ago, thousands of war elephants used to lead the armies of Alexander the Great.
The Economics and Politics of the Illegal Ivory Trade
At $80 a kilogram, the human-size ivory of a typical bull elephant could net a group of poachers from Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda about $9,600 – an absolute fortune. Little do they know though that the ivories are priced at $850 per kg for end-users, and can occasionally peak at $3,000/kg! Although ivory trade has been banned in the United States and most European countries since the late 1980s, demands from South American and Asian countries, especially China, have seen the illicit ivory market emerge as the fourth most profitable illegal activity in the world – behind human trafficking, drug trafficking and counterfeiting.
The huge profit margins have also seen organized crimes and terrorist groups in the continent getting in on the act. Somalian jihadist militant group Al-Shabaab, for instance, finances up to 40% of its operation from illegal ivory trade, or “the white gold of jihad”. There are real fears that illicit ivory trade might cause adverse and violent sociopolitical impacts similar to the West African blood diamond crisis a decade ago. Conservationists are already reporting of automatic weapons-totting soldiers escorting ivory convoys and poachers to counter the presence of wildlife rangers trained by the British Parachute Regiment. Existing drug trafficking routes are also used to smuggle ivories off the continent to avoid detection.
How to Brutally Murder an Elephant and Make a Handsome Profit
Poachers usually work in groups inside protected parks and sanctuaries. They typically target old male elephants due to their fully matured tusks. Group members will herd their target by shouts and gun fires. A spear or two to the heart is usually enough to bring down even the largest elephants; failure to make an instant kill could result in an enraged elephant chasing after the closest visible target. The poachers would then chop off the trunk and slice the flesh between the head and neck to reach the base of the tusk. Once they’ve hacked off the tusk, they will move on to the next target, leaving the carcass of the elephant to rot under the sun.
In a 2014 interview conducted shortly after his release from prison, Kenyan poacher John Sumokwo described how elephants “scream when they die,” and how other elephants in the vicinity would get distressed and shout as well.
On occasions, the slaughter becomes a terrifying massacre. In January 2012, hundreds of Chadian on horses rode across the border to go into the Bouba Njida National Park in neighboring Cameroon. Once inside, they used rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles to shoot at several large groups of elephants. At least 650 elephant carcasses were found over the next several days– all with their tusks chopped off. To make matters worse, the Chadian raiders regularly return to seek more elephants, and are absolutely undeterred by the presence of Cameroonian soldiers.
Despite existing national laws and a global ban on ivory trade, as well as more stringent cross border enforcement, the rate of illegal poaching is not going down. It is clearly unsustainable, but then, poachers rarely do think about sustainability. If the current trend continues, the planet will run out of elephants in 25 years.
Song of the day: Toto – Africa