No Lone Wolves

No Lone Wolves

lone wolfNext week the House votes on a series of bills to roll back the Endangered Species Act of 1973. These are acutely, expertly crafted pieces of legislation. They will absolutely do their trick.

But interestingly if the Senate agrees and Trump signs, the effects will be devastatingly quick in Africa. A new U.S. administration might reverse the reversal fast enough – for example – to save wolves and condors and whooping cranes in America. But elephants, lions in Africa?

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Jumbo Jangles

Jumbo Jangles

eleClarity on how badly elephants may be declining is at hand. Wednesday scientists began the “2017 Selous-Mikumi Large Mammal Census” which will be conducted over a huge area of nearly 43,000 sq. miles in central Tanzania.

It will be the first such careful animal census of the area since 2014 but more importantly will help determine the much debated viability of the “Great Elephant Census (GEC)”, which tore through the continent a year ago. One of the great criticisms of that inflammatory report was precisely that it ignored areas that the current census will now sample.

Why believe this one?

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False Charity

False Charity

PAMS vs charityCrimes are often subjective. Elephant poachers, drug users, and teenage suicide bombers fall into this category. There are thousands more examples across a wide spectrum of wrongness.

Wednesday evening one of the most successful crusaders against elephant poaching was murdered on the streets of Dar-es-Salaam where he defied his notorious reputation with a zealous fight against poachers and brokers of illicit ivory. It’s no surprise.

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Jumbo Politics

Jumbo Politics

luangwaselesAfter elephants “terrified” a Kenyan politician campaigning near Tsavo National Park, the candidate told supporters the government has done “Very little… to make sure human-wildlife conflict is addressed.”

A few weeks earlier Kenya’s proud new SGR train plowed into a cow in the same area because elephants had torn down the fence along the rail line.

In the last few months I’ve seen first-hand the increasing human/wildlife conflict.  It’s not a pretty scene.

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Poaching Politics

Poaching Politics

antipoaching fenceIn this upended world even long-standing beliefs about extinction are being contested by a public ready to do anything so long as it’s different.

Rhino haven’t survived in the wild for decades, but since the 1980s they’ve been so well protected in fenced reserves that their numbers actually increased. That’s changing: Poaching inside fences is exploding, courts are freeing poachers, breeders are defying international bans and regimes like Trump’s are rescinding years of safeguards.

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OnSafari: Central Tanzania

OnSafari: Central Tanzania

group.889.chefanWe just ended six days in Tanzania’s remote central game parks of The Selous and Ruaha. Zanzibar is not exactly Manhattan, but flying into here from Ruaha was like returning to civilization from a Jurassic Park time warp.

The entire massive area is defined by great sand, catchment rivers that drain nearly 100,000 square miles into the Indian Ocean. We spent almost all our time game viewing in Ruaha along the Ruaha, Mwagusi and smaller rivers. Here in this most remote wilderness the rivers are mostly sand and little flowing. Most of the landscape is dominated by expansive bushland not unlike California’s chaparral country.

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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.