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.

Getting Grandma’s Necklace

Getting Grandma’s Necklace

gettinggrandmasnecklaceIf you want to dispose of Grandma’s necklace, you better do it before August.

Last week Fish & Wildlife inched towards final new August regulations on the sale and use of ivory within the U.S. Orchestras were elated, piano vendors were piqued, and the Wall Street Journal was furious.

The Thursday announcement is based on agency findings made the previous month but only published last week.

The Thursday announcement relaxed previously proposed regulations that would have prevented any musical instrument composed of endangered animal products (like ivory piano keys) to be brought into or taken out of the U.S.

At the same time, though, the agency reenforced proposed regulations that will prevent any individual owner of ivory less than a hundred years old from selling or trading it, unless of course if it is part of a musical instrument.

Other petitioners, like museums seeking the ability to produce exhibitions that include foreign works of art (like ivory that are not musical instruments), were not addressed.

In claiming victory for its lobbying, The League of America Orchestras said the adjustment was “in response to urgent appeals from the League.”

At the same time the revised proposed regulations tightened restrictions on the commercial sale of pianos with ivory keys.

“These regulations … place a burden on the piano industry,” a leading blog contended.

And it might be time to quickly sell your grandma’s ivory on eBay. If current regulations hold to August when officially implemented, individual owners of ivory less than a century old will not be able to trade or sell their products.

This effects personal ownership of jewelry, for example, and would restrict an estate from liquidating such ivory items in probate. It would also forbid any commercial transactions, such as selling Grandma’s “newer” ivory necklaces on eBay.

The agency has yet to specify, though, how an old piece of ivory can be certified to be more than a hundred years old, and it’s very likely that most individual owners of old ivory will not have adequate documentation to be certified.

This infuriated the increasingly irrational Wall Street Journal which somehow bundled into its ire Botswana’s ban on hunting as well, concluding that these two actions will hasten elephant extinction.

In sum it looks like the August regulations will be pretty tough, stiffing capitalists (Grandma) while ameliorating socialists (community orchestras).

I like this attitude, but I remain skeptical that it will help solve the “elephant problem.” I worry that the increasingly complex regulations further American political interests while distracting real conservationists from the problem that there are too many elephants in our increasingly developed world.

If I’m right and this tedious and laborious march to August regulations is mostly political if a tad ideological, it’s not so bad in an era of center ring political fighting. But don’t forget that Obama had no qualms about issuing the only waiver ever for a Wisconsin politician to kill and import an endangered rhino.

Extracted from the bare knuckles of American politics, I wish Americans would focus more on the real problem: what to do about a contentious elephant population in a world where there are too many elephants.

Real and profound questions like should elephants be culled or poachers executed are much more important than whether Emily sells Grandma’s necklace.

Who Gets The Ivory?

Who Gets The Ivory?

justafewexceptionsA nasty America is emerging in response to new Obama rules to prohibit the sale of ivory within the U.S.

It’s never been fully recognized that the second largest market for ivory sales after China is the United States.

EleStip: My necessary interjection whenever I write of poaching or ivory is to stipulate that I don’t believe that poaching is the most serious problem facing African conservation, today, or even elephants themselves. It’s (a) the human/elephant conflict; and separately (b), elephant overpopulation.

Readers of this blog and other conservationists might not realize that there’s a huge part of America which doesn’t like conservation.

When the Obama administration first proposed the rules in February, there was a huge outcry. Hunters, musicians, retailers and rich grandmothers protested so vehemently that the rules have been toned down.

Fish & Wildlife’s new rules will not formally be implemented until June and can be continually downgraded as the public outcry increases. But I expect they will be severe enough to curtail the ivory market in the U.S.

Sales, auctions, and even gifting of preowned ivory will likely be prohibited.

The theory is that constricting the demand for something reduces its commercial value, which is precisely what conservationists want to happen with elephant tusks.

But the devil is in the detail, and while I applaud the overall move to further regulate ivory, note the alarming exceptions likely to be promulgated with the new regulations in June:
– trophies from shot elephants;
– antique ivory owned prior to 1976; and
– ivory acquired “legally” before 1990.

Those exceptions (and probably others) are so remarkably political in nature that they grossly undermine whatever morality the Obama administration is trying to evince.

It reminds me of the fact that Obama himself is the only chief executive in the history of the world to have issued a waiver to a hunter to bring a shot rhino from Africa back home.

So while the rules are severe enough to massively reduce the trade of ivory within the United States, the few exceptions are the politically powerful NRA, celebrity antique dealers and other rich well-connected families whose inheritances are now more secure.

In other words, big donors.

Worldwide, in fact, the ivory market is constricting. More and more large commercial retailers in Asia are themselves banning the sale of ivory.

This follows numerous moves throughout China over the last several years to ban retail sales of ivory.

I’m sure that these much publicized efforts have their loopholes, too, but it is discouraging that in America, far from where elephants live, the closest to the elite that rule our country and the richest and most powerful are exempt from doing what’s right.

On Safari: Dangerous Elephants

On Safari: Dangerous Elephants

leopardintreeThis safari is spending six fantastic days in the Serengeti, traversing it from bottom to top, and guess what’s dominating game viewing.

Lions, leopard and cheetah of course, and with no surprise as the Serengeti is probably the best place in the world for big cats. See Chris Kordash’s photo above.

But what was a surprise is the close second: elephant.

I’m beginning to rethink the “elephant problem” after our experience in the Serengeti and the Crater. I’m convinced now that the ele are acting as if poaching has increased substantially.

While we were at Ndutu, Howard Buffet was, too. He was announcing a $24 million grant to the Tanzanian government for increase elephant anti-poaching efforts, including a new helicopter and the requisite training for rangers to use it.

Charging us near Klein's.
Charging us near Klein’s.
A day or two before, when we were in the crater, I counted 107 very large all male elephants collected on the western side. Although their tusks were not as big as the old tuskers that came down to the crater in the 1970s and 1980s, they were among the larger of today’s.

It was clear they weren’t acclimated yet to the crater, or to each other. I didn’t see them on my last safari, and I’m sure they weren’t here last year. So this is a relatively new development, quite contrary to normal elephant behavior, and almost identical to what the big tuskers of the 1970s and 1980s did.

The crater is not a good place for elephant, because there isn’t a lot of browsing; it’s almost all grazing. But the 1970/80s elephants learned to live with it and were protected from poaching by the unique geography of the crater.

The elephants we saw were fighting, as big bull elephants are wont to do. The old tuskers don’t fight, anymore. They’ve learned to live with one another, and I suspect that’s what will happen with the current crew.

I continue to be very critical of much of the media’s reporting of elephant poaching, however. (Please see my numerous previous blogs.) Recently, for example, Emily Kelting in the Huffington Post misstated the total number of elephant by several hundred thousand and continued the scandalous suggestion that in ten years they will be no more elephant.

It’s that kind of juvenile reporting that further complicates the problem. Yes, poaching is on the increase and my own observations just on this safari support that.

But no, extinction is not imminent, and there is a more serious problem than poaching: regardless of the horrible poaching, there are still too many elephant.

C. Kordash Seronera.
C. Kordash Seronera.

It’s a difficult issue, because poaching must be stopped, and efforts from Buffett and others to do so are exemplary.

But Tarangire is no longer the only place to see huge numbers of elephant whose normal behavior is stressed.

Coming in today to the far north Serengeti near the Kenyan border, we counted over 100 elephant in one mass group, so collected it was hard to discern families. They were at the very edge of the park, adjacent Maasai farms.

These huge numbers seem to be almost everywhere we went on safari: from of course Tarangire, to even Manyara, to the crater, to Ndutu, to Seronera … everywhere. It’s quite possible elephant numbers are seriously declining because of poaching, but it’s also absolutely true that there are too many of them in the space that’s left.

And that distorts their behavior and makes them dangerous.

So let’s try to take a deep breath, thank Howard and others, but recognize the problem is very serious and unsolvable unless the overpopulation of elephants is also addressed.

Poaching? Who’s Poaching?

Poaching? Who’s Poaching?

poachingwhosepoachingElephant poaching is increasing, unorganized, ad-hoc and much more likely organized by corrupt Ugandan and Congolese government soldiers than rebels or militia.

Although rebels like what’s left of the LRA also poach, they are not the principal poachers. In fact, they probably have an extremely minor role. And news reports suggesting otherwise make it increasingly difficult for us to solve the problem of increased elephant poaching.

So says Kristof Titeca after more than a year of field work in Garamba National Park in The Congo, a young post-doc from Belgium, in an article posted today.

It’s only work and analysis like this, which rarely percolates into the world media, that gives us a handle on how to deal with the current increase in elephant poaching. It’s equally important in suggesting that established news media has more interest in fanning dying embers of scandals than digging for the truth.

Titeca’s research and analysis is about ivory poaching. But he can’t help but wonder why not-for-profits out raising money, like the established world media find it so necessary to make these untrue links:

“One cannot help thinking that these reports are primarily concerned with trying to bring the LRA back into the limelight, in a context where its reduced violence makes it much harder to do so.”

And so Titeca veers slightly from his field work about elephants and ivory to find a couple references showing how diminished the LRA has become. His own work has concluded the same.

News delivery is so entrenched and institutionalized that reality is fixed like photograph. Often today in Africa, you have to turn to young kids outside the media system to get the real story.

There are a few precious sources in established media, and Titeca for example applauds Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times. But he doesn’t applaud any NGO or charity organization, and I expect because there aren’t any to applaud.

Titeca’s research is comprehensive. He details the trail from the initial killing to the traders and middleman to the airports that finally export it. Although established media focuses on Dar-es-Salaam and the Kenyan coast of Mombasa as major exit conduits, Titeca’s own research points squarely to Uganda.

As I’ve often written elephant poaching today is totally different from the plague that nearly exterminated the beast in the 1970s and 1980s, but those days gave rise to public awareness and the birth of numerous then good charity organizations.

Those organizations just can’t get it right, this time. In part because their very successful method of helping to end the extermination forty years ago won’t work, today, and they seem incapable of changing their focus.

Back then raising awareness and putting pressure on certain governments successfully led to the creation of CITES and the international ban on trading ivory.

That’s done. And it’s no longer working, because most governments are wholly convinced of the need to ban the ivory trade (even, I sometimes think, China) and because the world is widely aware of all kinds of animal poaching.

As Titeca and so many others point out, the trouble today is small ad-hoc groups of poachers and more organized middlemen, and many, many of them.

The mischievous attempt to put the rap on rogue organizations like the LRA is a terrible distraction and untrue: hard for the public to disconnect because the LRA is so horrible, and hard for CNN because it makes such a good story.

Ivory poaching today in East Africa is hardly different than robbing a 7-11 in the U.S. And it’s on a dangerous increase, yes, but the solutions are much more complicated than when Mama Ngina collaborated with the Emirates and used Sikorsky helicopters over the Serengeti.

The world’s complicated, folks. There’s no solution in your newspaper headline.

Game Viewing in Zimbabwe

Game Viewing in Zimbabwe

After a relatively long period during which Zimbabwe’s national parks seemed to be recovering in spite of Robert Mugabe, tourists reported gunfire in the country’s main national park this week.

And — unfortunately — it was not the gun fire of a revolution. The shots came from hunting rifles.

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s most precious big game wilderness. Located in the northwest of the country, it was one of Africa’s primary game reserves throughout the last century.

You need to be cautious when researching it, though, as is true of everything today in Zimbabwe. The link above to Wikipedia is quite dated, with Hwange’s biomass considerably smaller than the library reference suggests, and its ecology far more fragile.

“…the number of animals being snared for food by local people living on the boundary of the Park has increased dramatically,” reports one of Hwange’s most dedicated tourism operators. This because of severe food shortages throughout the country.

That’s only one of three major problems facing Hwange, today.

The second serious problem with Hwange is its very design. Wildlife filmmaker, Aaron Gekoski, documented this recently in his March production, “Grey Matters“.

When Hwange was created in 1928 it was understood there was not enough water for a real wildlife park. So the government built boreholes, water wells, throughout the park and has been pumping water for the wildlife ever since.

This isn’t unique. The same is done in Namibia’s main national park, Etosha, and in a variety of national and private reserves throughout southern Africa.

It works if maintained. But the last Zimbabwe resource that the current dictator cares about is its wildlife, and the boreholes have not been maintained. Fewer than half of the original ones are operating, and as a result, the animals are dying.

But Hwange’s greatest problem, reflected this week as tourists trying to find an elephant in Hwange instead heard it being shot, is the wholesale looting of its biomass, and not just by corrupt government officials, but by private hunting companies.

Soldiers regularly harvest ruminates indiscriminately, sometimes assisting villagers for their bushmeat. While subsistence hunting elicits some understanding from me, Zimbabwe soldiers are well paid.

And without any study or regards to biology or ecology, the government of Zimbabwe is trading animals for political favors.

Last year foreign wildlife investigators confirmed that the government of Zimbabwe had exported at least four small elephants to China. The act was little more than stupid cruelty by the seller and receiver. Four young elephant removed from their families have little chance of surviving, anywhere, much less in a Chinese zoo.

There was such worldwide outrage at this act last year, that the global treaty which governs the trade in international species of which China is a signatory, CITES, banned any further such transactions between Zimbabwe and China.

China is legendary at publicly accepting such restrictions while finding ways to work around them, or to simple illegally ignore them in practice. But the attention this focused on Zim’s dwindling elephant population provoked a real local vigilance that seems ready to expose any subsequent violation.

But while internationally Zimbabwe may be restrained, internally it’s gone bonkers.

One of Zimbabwe’s most important wildlife reserves is the Save Conservancy (pronounced Sav-hey), in the far southeast of the country that was once scheduled to become a part of a trans-national wilderness withn Mozambique and South Africa wildernesses.

Land grabbing has grown from sport to routine in Zimbabwe, and Save is being eaten away as the Mugabe regime parcels it out to its cronies.

And add to this devil’s den of looters professional hunting.

In the old, good days, Zimbabwe was a preferred destination of hunters, and its wilderness was one of the best managed in the world, with hunters and non-hunters in grand alliances that did much to preserve Africa’s game.

That’s changed. This week tourists in Hwange reported hearing gunfire, and not the kind which would excite us all that the regime was under assault. These were the shots from hunting rifles.

We don’t know if the elephants shot were by hunters from the regime, or hunters from abroad.

But the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZATF), a proactive and somewhat subterranean wildlife NGO, insists that Zimbabwe professional hunters are now regularly harvesting animals technically illegally from national parks and private reserves, with the tacit approval of the Mugabe government:

Arnold Payne, Ken & Tikki Drummond, all of Impala African Safaris, have been named as the principal thieves.

Worse, ZATF says, “It is suspected that some of the hunters … are US citizens.”

The old adage, three strikes and you’re out, is dangerously close to being true in Zimbabwe’s big game wildernesses: subsistence hunting forced by food shortages, an ecological design of national parks that can’t withstand neglect, and now wholesale looting of the biomass.

Hwange and its other sister wildernesses in Zimbabwe which for so many years were the treasures of Africa now teeter on the brink of annihilation.

Tit for That

Tit for That

The Obama Administration may have hastened rhino extinction in order to achieve political capital in Wisconsin.

Charity begins at home, and there’s no more powerful example of this than for Americans interested in saving rhinos and no greater reversal in my life time than what the Obama Administration has just done.

For the first time since U.S. laws then international treaties prohibited international commerce of rhino, the Obama Administration has issued a waiver to David Reinke, a big-game hunter from Wisconsin allowing him to import the rhino he shot in Namibia in 2009.

This is the first ever waiver issued by any administration since America’s Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, and may in fact put America in violation of the world-wide CITES treaty of which America was so instrumental in creating.

The action by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has raised numerous eyebrows and not only among wildlife advocates, and occurred right when the European Union enacted even tougher bans on the trade of rhino within EU country borders.

Fish & Wildlife’s explanation is pitiful. It invokes a moral platitude that sport hunting can support conservation, which while sometimes true is absolutely not in the case of any endangered species. And it cites as a positive reason for issuing the waiver the more than quarter million dollars Reinke spent on his rhino hunt in Namibia.

To many of us, this action is patently political: Trade rhino for political capital in the contentious arena of Wisconsin by wooing over a major Republican supporter. This time I’m not only joined by the Huffington Post that suggests as much. So does Scientific American.

Tuesday’s blog about the American Wade Steffen and today’s blog about the American David Reinke and the Obama Administration illustrate how misplaced American support for saving the rhino may be.

Every single save-the-rhino (or save-the-elephant, or save-the-groundhog) group on earth presumes, and correctly so, that commerce of any kind in that animal increases exponentially its black market thereby massively increasing the threat of its extinction.

If Fish & Wildlife argues that Reinke’s quarter million dollars will save the rhino, why not just issue hundreds of waivers each for a quarter million dollars? Or thousands of waivers?

It’s a child’s tease while the Obama Administration plays god with politics. Once a single international transaction of commerce has occurred — as it now has — subsequent transactions become easier and easier.

As my own experience in Africa developed over the years, “charity begins at home” grew increasingly important to me, but in an usually straight-forward manner: Yes, there’s horrible poverty in Africa, but there’s also horrible poverty in America.

What’s worse is that poverty in Africa is declining; poverty in America is growing. I’m an American, not an African. Ought whatever talents or skills I have to mitigate poverty be directed first at home?

But what about saving big-game wilderness, a concern much more African than American?

You have your answer in this blog and my last one, “Dumb Roper Nabbed.”

It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve sent to rhino-saving charities, or how much time or other resources your zoo or conservation society has allocated to rhino protection, your political leader has just reversed much of what you thought you were doing.

Charity begins at home.

Dumb Roper Nabbed

Dumb Roper Nabbed

Many Americans don’t care if something’s going extinct: it’s just “the way it is.” So it’s no surprise that big game poaching is as much an American problem as it is an African one.

“Put bluntly,” writes Australian ecologist Euan Ritchie, current species extinction is an ecological “avalanche” with current rates 1000 to 10,000 times higher than would be normal in a balanced environment.

Most people realize that the extinction of one species has the potential to threaten a whole ecosystem. We might not fully understand, for example, why that little flower in the Amazon jungle keep the canopy from falling down, but most people in the world accept that it might.

But rhino? What purpose, exactly, does this beast have? We know an awful lot about rhino, and nothing suggests it’s integral to the status quo of any particular environment. In fact, it rarely exists in the wild, anymore.

The answers are allusive and often personal. There are probably fewer Americans as a percentage who believe extinction of something like the rhino is a priority than compared to other societies, but likely and fortunately still probably a majority.

Americans were the ones to formalize the concept of an endangered species with historic legislation in 1973. And shortly after the Endangered Species Act was enacted, the sale of rhino horn was banned.

Almost forty years later, Jarrod Wade Steffen, a poor kid from McHenry Illinois, just wanted to get his mom some money after his rodeo career collapsed, so he started trafficking rhino horn.

There’s more to it, of course, including Mom sneaking out of California with a suitcase of small bills totaling more than $100,000. And there’s a lot we still don’t know, since Wade’s plea agreement with the Justice Department suggests he’s still involved with helping ongoing investigations.

At 21 years old, Wade was struggling to make a living competing in rodeos. He’d won his events in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Missouri and while he certainly wasn’t a star to watch his trajectory was OK.

Then he got injured in the eye by a camel he was trying to train. He started driving a truck, which earned a better living anyway than rodeos, and moved to Hico, Texas.

There in Texas, that wild and rowdy and never wholly moral place, Wade reconnected with old rodeo acquaintances who had rhino horn for sale. Most of them had it legally, usually from old big game trophies shot before the 1976 ban from the Endangered Species Act.

It wasn’t hard to find someone to sell to. Thirty-three times between June of 2010 and just before he was arrested in February of 2012 Wade sent rhino horn to Vinh “Jimmy” Choung Kha in Orange County California and earned hundreds of thousand dollars.

In that 18-month period, the American cowboy, Wade Steffen, trafficked in more rhino than were poached in Kenya.

Kha in turn sold the horn to Zhao Feng, a Chinese national living mysteriously in Orange County, part of the new rich Chinese buying expensive California real estate and not really doing much else. Kha laundered the money he got from Feng through his import/export business and his girlfriend’s nail salon.

The ring was blown apart when Wade, his mother and his girlfriend, were stopped at the Orange County airport with three suitcases carrying around $300,000 in cash.

Wade, his mother, his girlfriend, Kha, Feng and a bunch of others, including an antique dealer in New York, were all subsequently arrested. Federal authorities called it the biggest bust in the history of illegal rhino horn trading.

“These individuals were interested in one thing and one thing only – making money,” said Fish & Wildlife Director Dan Ashe.

Whether that’s wholly true or not, one thing is certainly wholly true:

Wade, his relatives and friends, and all the other people around who knew what he was doing don’t care if something goes extinct.

Extinction, and in particular rhino extinction, is not just an African problem.

NPR Rhino Preview

NPR Rhino Preview

NPR’s series this week on rhino poaching is probably worth paying attention to. Here’s some background before listening today to All Things Considered:

Be cautious. John Burnett’s terrible reporting for NPR on elephant poaching not too long ago set me ablaze. He fouled up the numbers completely, came from the wrong perspectives and reduced a complicated issue to hardly a cartoon.

PBS was just as bad, but had redeeming parts. The February production that included Aiden Hartley going undercover in Dar-es-Salaam to document that trade in illegal ivory was brilliant, but their numbers and back stories that introduced the stealth section were poor if not patently untrue.

So why am I directing you to another American public media production about animal poaching?

Because the synopsis presented over the weekend by reporters Frank Langfitt and Gregory Warner sounds good. Both reporters are more experienced than the reporters assigned to the elephant story.

Because many, many bloggers and experts – not just me – were highly critical of the elephant reporting by NPR and PBS earlier. Some of that noise had to get through.

Because basic facts, which have been buried in scandalization for years, are already out in the story and look good: In the whole summary, I did not hear once any reference to rhino horn being used as an aphrodisiac. It isn’t, but this reference has peppered stories of rhino poaching since time immemorial, a racist and horrible injustice to the bigger story.

Rhino horn is in demand — as with ivory — in Asia but for medicinal, holistic beliefs in its curative powers. Used for centuries as a fever reducer, newly rich Asians (mostly Vietnamese) buy tiny erasure-size blocks of compressed horn to cure everything from diabetes to hangovers.

For the poacher in East Africa, though, the main market is Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea and thereabouts, where rich businessmen buy the horn to polish it as a dagger handle.

In the ATC story summary we heard this weekend, Langfitt and Warner conceded that even after poaching there are still enough rhino births annually to continue increasing the population.

(Media that they are, however, they’re unable to avoid teasing us with scandal, claiming that at current rates this will not be the case by 2017. I doubt that.)

And they have drilled into the attempts at real solutions, including horn cutting and controlled rhino farming and harvesting.

So unlike the huge bulk of elephant reporting these last several years which has been terribly incorrect, and of which NPR and PBS have contributed to messing up, this one might be different.

Stay tuned.

Elephant in a Texas Circus

Elephant in a Texas Circus

It’s likely there is a greater percentage of Chinese who wish to end the ivory trade and save elephants than there are Texans who believe in evolution.

Think about that, please.

Yesterday, the Chinese actress Li Bingbing – who has 20 million followers and counting on her social media – made a highly public visit to an elephant orphanage in Nairobi and then called on her fellow Chinese to stop buying ivory.

She joins a growing list of Chinese celebrities aggressively supporting conservation issues, and it makes me so damn mad the way current media again and again is blaming the Chinese for a crisis they’ve also made up: elephant decline.

The same organization for which Bingbing is an honorary ambassador is also one of the few to use realistic numbers regarding elephants. You might have heard of this organization: the United Nations.

The press statement released with Bingbing’s conference referred to “data [that] shows that 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011.”

Contrast that with CNN that described the “slaughter of elephants” at an “alarming rate” and blamed it on the Chinese.

As I’ve pointed out again and again in this blog, animal poaching is horrible. Using the UN’s numbers (see link to the report, below) there are probably a half million or more elephant in Africa, today, and a low estimate of their annual reproductive rate increases that population automatically by 25-35,000 annually.

There are too many elephant. Elephant/human conflict is Africa’s single-largest conservation problem. So even with the illegal poaching, the troublesome population is growing larger and larger every year.

And the notion that it is all due to the Chinese is racist.

Yes, most of the illegal ivory goes to Asia, but Asia is not China. There is huge market in Thailand almost equal to all of China, and another huge market in South Korea. Anyone ever talk about those countries? And a huge portion of the Chinese market comes in through Hong Kong, which is as little Chinese as possible. The next conduits are Indonesia and the Philippines.

But do we ever hear negative things about those capitalist ally mean guys?

This whole made-up story about the imminent doom of elephants is horrible enough in itself. The elephant problem is not with its likely demise, but with the demise of our entire conservation efforts in Africa as young populations of modern Africans get sick and tired of being stepped on by animals preserved for rich foreigners.

Go ahead and let the beast bulldoze your child’s primary school at night and decimate your watermelon crop, so that South African tourism chains can charge $800 per American per night to see them picking their teeth and wagging their tails the next morning.

Look folks, we’ve got to climb down from inaccurate media that’s turning real world conflicts into soap operas. I’m so exasperated not just with CNN, but a whole range of media, each one feeding on the American public’s craven need for apocalypse.

The best factual report about the elephant situation you can read by clicking here. Be patient and refresh your viewer often, because it’s a huge report with many charts and tables and it’s created for CITES by CITES and the UN. Unfortunately it’s skewed towards the apocalyptic angle, for political reasons anticipating the upcoming CITES battle about sales of regulated ivory. But its numbers are solid and absolutely support my ranting and raving.

It’s a real problem, but we aren’t thinking about it correctly or working to resolve it. We’re just using it to titillate us.

Get real. Thank you, Bingbing and UN.