Elephant in The Room

Elephant in The Room

elephantintheroomCOP17, the CITES treaty working group, is winding down like a firecracker with the biggest boom possibly yet to come. Southern African countries prevailed in a bitter fight to keep all elephants from being listed as imminently going extinct, and the fight over lions begins today.

CITES was absolutely fundamental in saving elephants from extinction 30 years ago. But times have changed. Has it lost its power to politics?

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CITES Senses

CITES Senses

elephantgraphsMore than two thousand ardent scientists and advocates are in Johannesburg today preparing for next year’s CITES. Historical treaties like the Geneva Convention may actually effect our daily lives more noticeably but only CITES has attracted such global consensus that enforcement is aggressive and routine.

Today horse trading like you’ve never seen is going on, but in the end unlike so much else in today’s troubled world, everybody really will come together.

Sound nice? Yes, it is, but there’s still this one thing….

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Poaching Politics

Poaching Politics

PoachersRichard Leakey’s conservation organization just announced that “poaching rates [in Kenya] have decreased dramatically” and that “Kenya’s elephant populations are now on the rise.”

This is, of course, good news but the May 25 press release was bereft of references or statistics. “Dramatically” needs to be substantiated, and frankly what I intuit here is that wildlife organizations are resyncing to reality: e.g., poaching was never as “dramatic” as had been suggested.

The group, Wildlife Direct, is one of the most respected in Africa. Leakey’s involvement goes way back to when he was the Wildlife Czar for the country in 1989 when poaching really was out of control. More than almost any other individual in Africa, he was instrumental in stopping that horrendous decimation of elephant.

He was integrally involved in Kenya’s collaboration with the U.S. prior to that which created the CITES treaty, which remains the mechanism worldwide for regulating the conservation of endangered species.

The recent Wildlife Direct report that monitored the creation, passage and implementation of wildlife laws in Kenya gives very positive ratings to the system in Kenya now used to prevent poaching.

It points out that many more persons are being prosecuted, including major black marketeer distributors, and that many more have gone to jail and that these represent “significant improvements.”

The group actually credits itself as well, claiming that its courtroom monitoring team is the principal motivation (for the courts, anyway) to implement the laws and put poachers behind bars.

But the battle’s not over, the group points out:

“The team of lawyers also warn that endemic delays and corruption mean that too many criminals are still walking free from the courts… The undermining of wildlife trials by corruption is the elephant in the room.

“Numerous cases are failing due to … the loss of evidence, witnesses fatigue, loss of files, wrong charges, wrongful conclusions, and illegal penalties. What’s worse is that there are no consequences for those involved in undermining these cases.”

Those criticisms apply to almost everything prosecuted in the Kenyan courts. Anyone remember why the President and Vice President of Kenya were let off their International Criminal Court prosecution for crimes against humanity? Loss of evidence, loss even of witnesses.

Wildlife Direct’s actions continue the long and uninterrupted integrity of Leakey’s involvement in all aspects of his native country, and bravo to that.

But when the stats arrive as they must, and as they trickle in from elsewhere in Africa, I think we’ll learn a couple very important things:

First, poaching in the last few years – as horrible as it is – was never as bad as we were told. I wonder how many media groups are publishing this current finding, that things are improving, compared to a couple years ago when anecdotal statistics were used to suggest an apocalyptic decline in elephants.

Second, as the individual stories of poachers get reported — as journalists study those who are prosecuted and jailed — I think we’ll learn that most poachers are ad hoc individuals just trying to survive: Criminals, if you will, forced almost against their will into illegal activity simply to get food and provide for their families.

Poaching is not cut-and-dried, and now we’re learning, it’s not even well documented.

You Can’t Burn Ivory Towers

You Can’t Burn Ivory Towers

width=No matter how much ivory Kenya burns or how widely NPR publicizes it, the poaching of elephant will not stop until individuals stop buying ivory and until rich people cede much of their wealth to the poor.

Conservation will not succeed if its implementation is so narrow as to neglect those who it could hurt or destroy.

It’s true that some of the earliest ivory ever used was for purpose not beauty. Its unusual molecular strength keeps it from splintering or breaking even under the most stressful conditions yet it has a “softness” that mutes rapid or forceful contact.

Ivory was plastic, before plastic was invented.

So what was useful for elephants and walruses undoubtedly was useful to early man.

Until seven millennia ago early elephants roamed China nearly as much as they are found in Africa, today. As they disappeared, ivory became a luxury item as much as a component of tools.

The “art of beauty” is often defined by levels of scarcity. Perhaps this contributed to ivory becoming a currency of the rich.

After more than a half century of very global and very public movements to save elephants and restrict ivory sales, even the Chinese are coming round. But demand for ivory, as with demand for old paintings or rare artifacts from Alepo, is not going to abate even as the Chinese public changes its attitudes.

The demand for ivory is global, not just Chinese. So long as there are rich people willing to pay for stolen treasures of the Mideast or blackmarket Picassos, there will be ivory seekers worldwide.

The supply side is equally daunting.

Today’s poaching of elephant is not the corporate business it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Virtually all the elephant killed today are lost to itinerant gangs unsupported by Emirate sheiks with their Sikorski helicopters and private ships.

These gangs risk the enormous hazards of killing an elephant then having to find some scumbag broker because they have no better way of surviving.

They have no jobs, no livelihood and the sustenance their ancestors eked out of their lands is no longer viable. The land is leeched or confiscated or over grazed, and sustenance living can’t provide the capital to be successful in a modern world.

It’s terribly disturbing to me that so many truly well-intentioned conservationists express “feeling sick” when they see a pyre of tusks being burned but are not similarly demonstrative over the destruction of Alepo or systematic reductions in U.S. foreign aid.

You just can’t separate the phenomena. It’s OK to “feel sick” seeing that media picture of burning tusks provided you in your mind also know how sick and neglected the children near that burning pyre actually are.

You must realize that the father and brother and uncle of that little girl care about her, that they care so much about her that they will commit a crime to feed her.

You’ll notice once you affect that understanding that things get more complicated, that your “sickness” isn’t quite what you thought. It’s cure isn’t quite as simple.

Kenya is doing the right thing. They are doing it possibly for duplicitous reasons, that tourism needs a boost, but I also really believe that young, educated Kenyans have seriously embraced conservation. That’s wonderful.

But it just … doesn’t matter.

It won’t stop poaching. Rich people alone can stop poaching. They can stop buying and hoarding ivory, and their wealth alone redistributed can eradicate global poverty.

Otherwise, the wild elephant is doomed.

#9 – People Come First

#9 – People Come First

Top photo by Stephen Farrand.
Top photo by Stephen Farrand.
There’s a lot similar between poaching in Africa and robbing 7-11’s in Baltimore.

Poaching and other animal/human conflicts is my #9 most important story in Africa for 2015, because that’s exactly how I’ve always viewed poaching: a human/animal conflict.

Fanatics who give elephants souls and would save a meerkat before a Maasai are finally falling out of favor: Their hyperbolic, inflammatory arguments are fortunately being replaced by science.

But first the news.

Overall, 2015 was not good for African big game, although the Paul Allen elephant census injected some sanity into the elephant hysteria and showed us it isn’t as bad for elephants as many suggested.

For other headliners like rhino and lion, the numbers were grim. Even for the great herds and other ungulates several years of serious climate change seems to be taking its toll.

Until now I’ve taken great pleasure in telling a prospective client that despite all the news about Africa’s declining wilderness and game, that there are three times as many wild animals in Africa compared to when I started in the 1970s.

With such a span of time that may still be true, but telescoping down to just a few year increments, 2015 was definitely worse than 2014 which barely held onto 2013. In fact until around 2010, animal populations (with the exception of elephant and lion) were increasing. Now, it seems the increases have stopped or started to reverse.

What’s happening?

Charlatans would have you believe it’s poaching, and that poaching is evil incarnate.

Much of it is due to poaching. But as I’ve often written, the only evil incarnate may be with the end consumer. If you had any sympathy with Senn Penn’s interview with El Chapo, or understand the social progressive notion that crime is survival, it’s the facilitator – the user, the end consumer – who should be held culpable.

This is especially true at the periphery of wilderness in Africa. These are usually the most rural areas of the continent, yet still heavily populated with people who need food and water and other basic tools for survival.

When development slows or stops, when unexpected and radical climate change repeatedly devastates a rural area, peasants devolve into what those more fortunate than them call criminal behavior.

It’s only criminal if you can survive without doing it.

Lions are being hit very, very hard, because like all carnivores on the periphery of wilderness in developing areas, they eat meat. No bylaws govern their consumption. A cow doesn’t run as fast as a wildebeest.

Lion also suffer from increasing eminent domain. The wilderness is shrinking because Africa is developing. The first animals to suffer from shrinking territory are those that are territorial like lion.

Rhino poaching has morphed from individual kills by desperate folk to organized farms. But while there are a couple areas [only] where rhino are holding their own in the wild, on the whole they’ve been absent from the real wilderness for several decades. (They are doing well in fenced and other protected areas.)

Elephant have been decimated in central Tanzania … by poaching. (Elsewhere, they’re doing OK, thank you.) There’s probably no better example on the whole continent of human/animal conflict, because where the poaching is now (The Selous) is only 50-80 miles from a city of ten million people (Dar-es-Salaam).

Farmers in the west want to shoot wolves because they eat sheep. I wouldn’t dare suggest that a rancher in Morogoro lives a life similar to an American farmer’s, but a comparison still holds true in a relative way: both farmers argue the animal threatens their livelihood, or at least their way of life.

We are much less arrogant refuting the U.S. ranchers’ claim than the Tanzanian’s: it’s unlikely the U.S. rancher and his children will die if they are prevented from shooting wolves. It’s much less certain that the rancher in Morogoro and his family won’t die if he can’t raise his sheep. His next step is poaching.

People and animals, the whole environment are intricately connected. Ignorance may be an excuse but those of us who are not ignorant must be stewards of the less fortunate folks.

But … people come first.

(For my summary of all the top 10 stories in Africa in 2015, click here.)

Rhino Roundabout

Rhino Roundabout

rhinoandguardsThe age-old economic debate whether a government can adequately control demand by regulating its market has moved onto the survival of the rhino.

Last week a regional appeals court (The Pretoria High Court) voided a South African government ban on selling and trading rhino products within South Africa. The decision does not effect South Africa’s compliance with the international treaty that bans the trade of rhino products internationally.

Practically speaking, the value of buying rhino horn products that remain in South Africa is almost nil. The value of a rhino product comes from demand from far away Asian markets.

CITES, the international treaty which regulates the international trade in living things, has prohibited the sale of any rhino product for almost forty years.

(CITES is a fantastic world-peace treaty that I’ve often written about. Use the search bar on my blog to learn more about it.)

CITES was created to save elephants, and it did. Various whales and fishes have also been saved from extinction, but there are hundreds more species that have benefited from being “listed” at various levels of restricted trade.

Rhino were among the first animals to be “listed” as off-limits to international trading by CITES. The rhino horn commands an enormous price in Asian markets where its powder is believed to have medicinal properties capable of curing stomach ailments, reducing fevers and even curing chronic illnesses like diabetes.

The weakness of CITES is proved in the fact that even today powdered rhino horn is legally available throughout Asia, often displayed in the windows of store-front drug stores. Acquiring it – from Africa or India – is patently illegal under CITES. But once acquired, the trade within the country is entirely the purvey of that country alone.

Opponents of CITES thus argue that all it does is perpetuate black markets. Proponents point to several studies conducted when portions of the treaty were lifted temporarily (such as for auctions of stockpiled elephant ivory), when refreshed markets stimulated new demand which in turn broadened the black market.

In an attempt to close this contradiction some countries have passed laws prohibiting internal trade in the same species that CITES prohibits international trade. The Obama administration is currently in the process of an uphill battle that will prohibit the domestic trade in elephant ivory.

Until last week, South Africa had prohibited the domestic trade of rhino horn.

Rhino – unlike elephants – survive because of private game farms, ranches and fenced national parks (like Nakuru in Kenya and Hluhluwe in South Africa). The horn is so valuable and the animal so easy to kill (a single individual with a relatively small gun has an excellent chance of hitting the very large rhino heart from the side of the animal) that only by virtual sequestration from the true wild can it be conserved.

And even so, with great difficulty. Rhino poaching and black marketering is legend. The 20,000 rhino alive predominantly on southern African ranches and farms represent 80% of the remaining population, but the poaching of rhino in South Africa has almost turned into a war.

South African Rhino farmers argue that they have an extremely valuable product that is entirely sustainable on the free market. Without a market, poaching ramps up to supply demand. Farmers claim they require virtual armies to protect their herds.

“This is a momentous judgment,” the plaintiff rhino farmer told the press. “I would just hope that the world understands that if I don’t sell rhino, my whole rhino herd would be dead within the next ten years.”

Rhino can be sedated and portions of the horn scraped off. The powder is more valuable than gold. Like fingernails the horn then regrows with virtually no negative effects to the rhino.

South African rhino farmers have been stockpiling huge amounts of rhino powder for many years, certain that the day will come when CITES will realize that market demand in Asia can be adequately supplied without endangering the animal. In fact, they argue, the pressure for poaching will abate.

In many ways rhino farmers see the prohibition against selling rhino horn similar to the prohibition against selling alcohol. With proper government regulation, the horrors of bootlegging will abate.

Most scientists, CITES and the South African government disagree and that’s why there was – until five days ago – a ban on any sale of a rhino product within South Africa.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that there is not a large enough market just within South Africa to sustain the farming. Clearly farmers believe by opening the valves on the internal market, it will somehow facilitate the international one. That’s illegal.

But that’s not their problem, is it.

Rhino Requiem? Not yet

Rhino Requiem? Not yet

rhinossurviveScience is not a Fox News forte, and they shouldn’t have tried to report this weekend’s death of Nola, the rhino in San Diego.

“The subspecies has been decimated by poachers… The horns are in high demand in parts of Asia where some people claim they have medicinal properties for treating everything from hangovers to cancer,” Fox reported.

Like much news telling only some of the story leads to massively misunderstanding it. This is a Fox News forte.

First, vigorous debate continues in the scientific community as to whether this rhino and its three remaining cousins still alive in a reserve in Kenya are, in fact, subspecies of the 20,000 white rhino that survive in South Africa.

The Northern White Rhino (NWR), of which Nola claims descent, has been considered a pretty distinct animal from its much more successful southern cousins (SWR) throughout my lifetime. I remember in the early days seeing them frequently in Meru National Park in Kenya.

Their difference is slightly taxonomic, but in 2010 several scientists delved into the DNA and concluded NWR was a sub-species. But many scientists then and now vigorously disagree.

More to the point, a heavily read science blogger in 2010 explained, “The danger in [suggesting a separate sub-species exists] could eventually backfire: it would not look good if zoologists were thought to be tweaking their conclusions in order to suit their favoured conservation projects.”

Many animal species — indeed including ourselves — develop slight genetic differences and even greater taxonomic differences simply by long periods of geographic separation. The scientists who believe the NWR is a separate sub-species believe that divergence was a million years ago.

Fox also simplified to the point of near falsehood regarding the reasons rhino are poached:

Rhino poachers are motivated far more by a Mideast market than an Asian one, albeit both markets exist. But a poacher’s pay is considerably higher from a buyer in Yemen or Djibouti than Hong Kong.

In the Mideast a rhino horn is polished up to become a dagger handle presented to rich young men by even richer fathers at their rite de passage. The Asian market is a close second, but what is noteworthy is that today’s conflicts in the Mideast have actually enhanced this market, as anything anti-western (like conservation) grows in popularity.

Fox also messed up seriously the suggestions that the subspecies might be saved by in vitro fertilization. I wrote extensively about this in 2009.

Reuters as usual got the Nola death more correctly.

What concerns me is the range of unhelpful conclusions that people of widely different predispositions will have with the notion that an animal has “gone extinct.”

African rhino as a whole are in need of our serious attention, and in fact a lot of good is being done. I think many will agree with me, today, that the white rhino will be saved when only 15 or 20 years ago we doubted this would be possible.

Perhaps it’s the desire for scandal, but the notion that the death of the San Diego rhino presages the death of all rhino is right up the ally of Fox News, or more to the point, its readers.

And once again, they’re wrong.

Queen to Pawn! Check!

Queen to Pawn! Check!

queenofivoryThe high profile arrest of a Chinese woman for ivory trading in Tanzania means a lot more than just the arrest of a Chinese woman for ivory trading in Tanzania.

Her arrest is proof that the ruling party in power in Tanzania fears losing the national elections in two weeks. Probably even worse is the naivete of conservation organization’s glee at her capture:

Yesterday conservation groups went ape over the arrest of Yang Feng Glan, the 67-year old vice president of the Tanzania China-Africa business council, a resident of Tanzania since the mid 1970s.

The Elephant Action League calls her the ‘Queen of Ivory:’

“She has been trafficking ivory since at least 2006, working with the most high-ranking poachers in the country and in the region.”

Glan is not new to Tanzanians and clearly her crimes have been known for some time. Remarkable, isn’t it, that the police superintendent announced yesterday that she’s confessed to everything.

This means that she won’t be presenting a defense. There will not be lawyers to assist her in allocating the blame. She won’t be “naming names.”

It was all her fault, all 30,000 elephants or so, all hundreds of thousands of tons of ivory, all immigration and customs passes … she did it all herself, and she’s confessed.

No need to question any officials now who might have approved such important matters as unmarked cargo bins, or police who never checked those giant warehouses down by the dock, or those wildlife officials who left butchered elephants lying in the veld to be investigated not by forensic detectives but striped hyaenas. They’re all off the hook, now. Fang confessed and so the issue of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade…

… won’t disrupt the upcoming October 25 national elections.

And I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Mrs. Fang won’t be sentenced for her confessed crimes before the elections are over, and that the complexity of the deals over her “confession” will haunt politicians on all sides for years to come.

These idiot politicians are making deals with the devil, and I can’t wait to see how it pans out. For the time being, of course, all they can see are the ballot boxes on October 25.

That’s what I think is the key to all of this. The party in power is in trouble for the first time since independence. One of the greatest bastions of support for the opposition is in the country’s north where elephant populations are safe and well protected, where tourism is so important.

Last month a hastily arranged seminar by local conservationists and journalists followed the ruling party’s promise to double tourism revenue if elected.

It received wide publicity and finally elevated conservation and the elephant problem into the national consciousness.

“I need conservation and the future of tourism to be part of election issues,” said the Director of the Serengeti Preservation Foundation (SPF), Meyasi Mollel.

“Conservation is a key issue in Tanzania, because the country’s economy is entirely based on natural resources. So for political parties to ignore conservation is a grave mistake,” Adam Ihucha, a brave journalist for the East African, said while keynoting the conference.

Note that the ruling party recently banned then unbanned his publication.

So in the last month as the election heats up, so finally did the conservation crisis in the country. That crisis is nearly entirely composed of the decimation of elephants in the center of the country, which is a stronghold of the ruling party.

If the ruling party loses the center of the country, it loses the election.

So the Queen of Ivory is nicely behind bars, has confessed, and guess what, won’t have to say a single other thing.

At least not until October 26.

The Man is Back

The Man is Back

richardleakeybackRichard Leakey is back. Not as the paleontologist. Not as the politician. As head of Kenya’s Wildlife Service. Window dressing at its finest!

Leakey is a very enigmatic character. I immediately disliked him during our first meeting in the late 80s when he was flying high as the architect and czar of the movement that was successfully stopping elephant poaching.

His accomplishments were many and a few years later he would demonstrate some exceptional personal courage when he was nearly assassinated while trying to develop a progressive political party in a country that at the time was being run by an iron-fisted dictator.

But he has had a lot of missteps in a variegated career that spanned science, wildlife administration and raw politics.

That’s his critical flaw: doing too many things, so doing nothing exceptionally.

Last month Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, appointed Leakey “Chairman” of the service that he founded almost 30 years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The position is similar to the chairman of the board of a corporation, so technically Leakey is not supposed to be involved in the actual running of the now massive organization. Local observers, however, think he might have more proactive inclinations.

Nearly fifteen years ago London’s Guardian newspaper asked if “there is any more fight” left in Richard Leakey? Leakey was certainly in the nadir of his many careers then. He was never charismatic like his father, but his public persona had just taken a whipping when he mysteriously resigned from the head of a “dream team” America helped create in Kenya to battle corruption.

His health is reported even worse than when I last met him at the Field Museum in Chicago on the anniversary of his father’s 100th birthday in 2003. Then, he seemed hardly able to talk.

I think Kenyatta appointed Leakey, so soon after a stream of American celebs including Kerry and Clinton visited Kenya, to reconnect with America and the west. Leakey, and his father Louis, are adored in western circles where they had extraordinary success fund raising.

Kenya is in a bit of a slump right now. The vicissitudes of Americans not understanding the ebola situation, the recession in Europe from which the bulk of Kenyan tourists have always come, and the lingering worries about terrorism following the country’s invasion of Somali four years ago have all combined to really challenge an otherwise dynamic economy.

Kenya Airways, which I think is one of the finest if not the finest airline in Africa, came under government scrutiny today for losing more than $100 million dollars last year at a time when most global airlines were making tons of cash.

Relying more and more on outside foreign aid, particularly because of the Somali invasion, Kenya’s internal engines are sputtering and Kenyatta recognizes that only foreign investment will reverse this.

IBM, for example, has yet to fully fund a major Kenyan investment that it announced in 2012.

In my opinion none of this heralds any real crisis but simply demonstrates how susceptible a young emerging nation is to western fears.

“Poaching” is a topic that still commands American attentions. Africans understand much better than westerners that there really isn’t an elephant poaching crisis right now. But westerner’s insatiable need for crisis has narrated a different story, and Leakey is still known as the pivotal character that stopped the real elephant poaching of the 1980s.

Savvy President Kenyatta understands he has to now stroke American psyches. Appointing Leakey is part of this strategy.

Ivory Ends

Ivory Ends

Only ivory can be so minutely and intricately carved yet remain so tough and durable.
Only ivory can be so minutely and intricately carved yet remain so tough and durable.
There may still be too many elephants in East Africa, but Tanzania is acting so irresponsibly with regards to increased poaching that the scales may soon tip.

This week a group of environmental organizations led by the EIA petitioned the U.S. government to withhold aid from Tanzania until elephant poaching abates.

It’s unlikely that the appeal directed to Secretary of State John Kerry will be seriously considered. Tanzania is on the front-line of the Obama administration’s war on terror, and the “elephant problem” is considered incapable of trumping “homeland security.”

The flaw in this reasoning is simplistic and ultimately fails because our homeland security policy with regards to terrorism is failing.

The explanations for Tanzania’s “elephant problem” also reveal why the country is so incredibly corrupt, why it has grossly mismanaged its treasure of natural resources including oil and gold, and why its powerful oligarchy can with abandon relocate thousands of Maasai to appease a few Dubai hunters.

Recently Dick Cheney agreed that enhanced interrogation techniques were a means to an end and were justified.

Facilitating if not outright supporting Tanzania’s corruption is also a means to an end that the Obama administration apparently feels is distant enough from public understanding to be acceptable.

I’ve often written that the elephant poaching problem is serious but exaggerated. Increasingly this year, though, the situation has grown more troubling. I hesitate to cite specific numbers, because they’re all over the place.

The EIA report looks sound to me, but I’m subsequently infuriated that they introduce it on their website with an ITN video that grossly misstates acceptable numbers. I just wish for once that these good environmental organizations working to save elephants would be more scientific and less evangelical.

London’s Guardian newspaper is probably the best resource in the world for accurate news on current elephant poaching. The Guardian contends that “Chinese demand for ivory is devastating Tanzania’s elephant.”

I agree, but what is missing from the hysteria is the fact that the growing development of Africa has enormously constrained elephant habitat in just the last ten years: not just national parks, but more importantly the vast areas peripheral to the national parks as well as the quasi protected corridors that connect distantly separately massive wildernesses to allow for elephant migrations.

These “corridors” and “donut edges” are often private land or land in trust, and demands for their development have grown exponentially. Farming, mining as well as simple village growth now impinge on what was only a short time ago elephant bush.

The tension between the needs of a growing and developing human population with the enormous amounts of land required for wild elephants is at the highest ever.

Until that tension is squarely addressed, corrupt officials will play god. Local communities engaged in ivory poaching will be given a pass, since the government is inept or incapable of giving them work, instead.

This is the real problem. Distant foreigners’ hearts may break when pictures of poached elephants appear on their TV screen. The world should continue to encourage China’s incremental movements to change a thousand-year culture that covets ivory as no other collectable.

And as the Guardian brilliantly pointed out, the disconnect between westerners’ campaign to stop endangered animal poaching and their allowance that these same animals may be legally hunted and harvested, has to be closed.

So the problem is not as simple as hysteria presents, but the problem is getting worse. It may not be the extinction of elephants that looms any more likely than the end of enough larger wild areas to support families of such a large wild animal in East Africa.

For the first time in my opinion, that is a plausible claim. Whatever the remedies, they certainly do not include ends-justify-means tests of what’s right to do.

Poached By The Rich

Poached By The Rich

rhinoboatThe escalating poaching of elephants and rhinos will not stop until the increasing gap between rich and poor is stopped.

There is mixed information right now about whether or not the poaching of elephants has slightly slowed, but even so it remains at relatively high levels.

But the poaching of rhino is escalating and is of most serious concern because there are far fewer rhino than elephant.

Indian rhino are a particularly endangered species, and rich Indian consumers are among the Asians who purchase rhino products as medicines.

Kaziranga National Park in India’s Assam is the center of the rhino war in India.

The irony is that until just the last few years the trouble in Assam was not with rhino poaching, but Muslim extremists. I regularly visited Kaziranga in the 1980s before it was often closed to tourists because of this political extremism.

While much of the world is suffering from religious extremism, and while it continues in Assam, rhino poaching is now a bigger issue, there.

Over the last few years efforts to curb both elephant and rhino poaching have been massive, and much of this has been successful. Why, then, does the problem continue?

“Rhino horn is worth more than gold,” explains Jeremy Hance writing for the ecological journal, Mongabay.

An average-sized rhino horn is now worth around $60,000.

The price of rhino horn has never gone down, but the fluctuations in the gold price have meant that there were times – about a decade ago when gold was at historic lows – that rhino horn was more expensive.

But in today’s world, with gold above $1600/ounce, it’s astounding that a natural-product medicine – which is what rhino horn is used for – would command a greater price.

Modern Asian’s use of animal product medicines is just like American’s use of natural products bought at health food stores. Of course there are fanatics, but most of us use them as supplements, not as principal treatments.

The analogy continues to the demographics in the market. Natural product health foods in American generally are used by an increasingly wealthy upper class.

The increasing spread between the rich and the poor gives the rich much more disposable income, and that will increasingly be spent on luxury goods and ancillary and tertiary products … like rhino horn and ivory.

A rich man’s fancies are a market man’s treasure, because the cost of a hobby or a fancy escalates far faster and higher than normal consumables in the market.

The dynamic is double-edged. As the rich get richer, they play more with their fancies and hobbies. At the same time the poor get poorer and more desperate and are willing to attempt risky business like poaching just to survive.

Of course the lack of today’s societies to distribute wealth fairly has much graver outcomes than the extinction of animals, but conservationists understanding of the route cause of their battle may at last force their politics to the fore.

Climate change, health care, a minimum wage and fair earnings – these are all issues that suffer when wealth is unfairly distributed to the powerful rich people of the world.

Add to that, now, the biodiversity of earth.

Massive Rhino Relocation

Massive Rhino Relocation

rhinos“Hundreds” of rhino will be relocated from South Africa’s landmark Kruger national park in the continuing struggle against poaching.

The announcement was made this morning by South Africa’s minister of tourism and wildlife. It will be one of the largest relocation of wild animals ever attempted.

The park, which is the size of New Jersey, has just under 8500 white rhino and poaching has escalated throughout South Africa but mostly in Kruger and surrounding private reserves.

Rhino poaching in 2007 stood at 13 in South Africa; last year it was 1,004. So far this year despite massive new efforts to curb the poaching including deployment of South African military, more than 500 have been poached in Kruger.

The “white” rhino is a very separate animal from the “black” rhino and the distinction has nothing to do with color: they are both grey. Both are endangered, but the black rhino is much closer to extinction in the wild than the white rhino which thrives in many reserves throughout southern Africa.

Although much bigger than its rarer cousin, the white rhino is remarkably docile and even in its wildest state is approachable and can often be touched. This makes it an amazingly easy animal to poach.

The horns of both rhinos are used identically in Asia for a variety of medical treatments and superstitiously as powder totems.

Although China has moved fast to curb the demand for wild animal parts by its rapidly increasing middle class, the prices for rhino and elephant parts have continued to escalate.

Kruger is particularly vulnerable because its entire eastern border is adjacent a fairly lawless and unpatrolled part of Mozambique. Mozambique is an easy exit for contraband from southern Africa to Asia.

South Africa’s largest rhino reserves, Hluhluhwe and Umfolozi near Durban, have suffered relatively little poaching in the last few years. The presumption is that by removing heathy animals from this vulnerable wilderness and placing them in areas like these, the continued growth in the rhino population in South Africa will be preserved.

As I’ve often written, our current era’s struggle with poaching is considerably different than 40 years ago, when there was massive corporate poaching centered in the Mideast. Today’s poaching tends to be by ad hoc gangs or single individuals attracted by the relatively large sum they can get on the black market for a single horn or tusk.

Last month, for instance, a gang in southern Texas was convicted of illegal gathering of U.S. antique ivory and rhino parts and sending them to China.

Both species of rhino and the elephant are considered endangered species, but elephants survival in the wild as currently exists is much more certain than rhino.

The Elephant isn’t in The Room

The Elephant isn’t in The Room

elenotintheroomElephant poaching is less important than jobs, energy, poverty and a host of other domestic African issues and until westerners embrace this, poaching will continue to increase.

At yesterday’s “historic“ African summit in Washington so many meetings and public forums occurred that Washington police had to close some of the city’s main roads, with limo lines moving back and forth causing their own congestion.

Most of the dozens of official gatherings were about trade, ending poverty, honoring former champions of American/African relationships, etc.

Bill Clinton spent twenty minutes speaking to Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta at an event honoring Andrew Young.

Trade and investment trumped all other topics, as they should. The continent is growing by 5.7%. Middle class consumers in Africa will soon approach a half billion in number. China is edging all other players out of opportunities. There’s a lot to talk about.

One of these many formal and countless informal meetings was about elephant poaching. It attracted four African Heads of State, four of the least important movers and shakers on the continent.

NPR, of course, covered it. This is because it’s an issue which resonates with the liberal leaning Americans who need good morning news fixes.

Americans tend to look at the world through myopic lenses that focus their own passions at the exclusion of greater but to them peripheral issues. It’s as true of the liberal as conservative.

And I’ve always pointed out that the liberal/conservationist attitude towards elephant poaching has not just distorted it but distracted our important attention from other issues.

Let me state again: elephant poaching is on the rise and is a serious concern for African conservation, today. But it’s on the rise for reasons other than just that there are bad guys and evil Chinese antique dealers.

Yesterday, for example, the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) did an audit of the 12 elephants that died in the last year in or near Amboseli National Park, Kenya’s most important elephant park.

Four died of natural causes: 33%.

Of the remaining eight, three were due to what officials called “human-wildlife” conflict, which I’ve often discussed: 25%.

I actually think this is the most serious problem, because it’s turning local sentiment against conservation. As Africa develops so rapidly, the conflict with the wilderness increases exponentially as that wilderness is better and better protected.

It’s one thing to have monkeys pinching the cookies you left out for your kids when they come home from school. It’s quite another when the elephant walks through their school or, god forbid, steps on the kids.

The remaining 5 of the 12 elephants were determined to have been “poached.” In other words, intentionally killed for illicit gain: 42%.

The media is rife with explaining and arguing whether the market for ivory or the price given at the source for ivory or corruption among wildlife officials or other bad things is responsible for this poaching.

“Julius Cheptei, the Assistant Director for the Southern Conservation Area, argues that there is a strong link between the swelling cases of poaching and the possibility that people are looking for traditional medication,” according to reporters covering the KWS Amboseli announcement. The reporter continues:

“Given the growing populations and spreading popularity of traditional medicines globally, experts say the demand for these natural remedies is increasing.”

The official continued to explain that often poachers are not interested in the ivory but in the elephant’s “private parts.”

As always, I’m not saying elephant poaching today is not a serious issue, and one report as above does not an issue settle.

I’m just saying, again and again, get a perspective.