Elephant Dilemma

Elephant Dilemma

Elephant encounters are one of the most exciting and memorable of all safari events. But they’re getting harder to manage, and maybe, dangerous.

I’m certain that elephant poaching has begun, again. Last week in the Serengeti my heart dropped when unexpectedly I watched two families of around 20 elephant run for high heaven away from us when we were noticed.

We were on the backside of the Moru Kopjes just before the Kusini road junction. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Africa because of the density of giant kopjes, massive granite outcroppings now radiantly green with the scrub bush and candelabra blooming with the rains. But for a giant tusker it must be somewhat confining, since the passageways between the kopjes are often narrow.

Years ago in the 1970s I remember that every time we encountered elephants in the Serengeti, they ran away from us, just like these did, their huge backsides swinging opposite their flopping tails like a fat circus lady can-can dancer. This time they stopped after 300 yards were placed between us. That’s different than in the old days, when they didn’t stop until they couldn’t be seen. So I guess we’re at a real decision point, right now.

Last October 7.2 tons of ivory were sold to two Chinese and two Japanese businessmen on the first allowed sale of ivory since 1999. (The 1999 sale was a single auction to a Japanese businessman and the first since the ban on ivory sales adopted worldwide ten years earlier.) Opponents of the sale warned at the time that it would spark new elephant poaching.

The sale was the culmination of years of wrangling between the southern and East African countries within the CITES convention. CITES (the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is the world’s most subscribed treaty: more than 200 countries bound together in the 1980s to end the decimation of elephants by banning the sale and transport of ivory.

The southern African countries are much more developed than East Africa. Their national parks and reserves have been well managed for nearly 100 years. Poaching was never the problem with them that it was in East Africa. In Kenya, 95% of its elephants had been wiped out by poaching; Tanzania had a nearly 80% loss.

So East Africa’s elephant fate was saved when the convention was adopted. By ending the trade in ivory, there was no value to poaching elephants.

And for the 15 years thereafter, southern African countries continued to stockpile ivory. Elephants die and throughout Africa, especially in East Africa, elephant hunting is allowed. In southern Africa especially, elephants are regularly culled to maintain what local scientists believe is a better natural balance in the protected reserves. Ivory built up in warehouses that cost a lot just to manage. But the ivory couldn’t be sold.

A large portion of the conservation efforts in southern Africa was lost when the ivory sale revenue was ended. In Zimbabwe, 95% of the ministries revenue for administering the national parks came from the sale of ivory.

The businessmen paid $1.3 million for the 7.2 tons, or about $75/pound. Today, most elephants carry tusks weighing about 70-100 pounds, valuing each animal at around $10,000-15,000. A senior park ranger in the Amboseli Game Reserve makes approximately $3,000 annually. A starting ranger can earn as little as $100/month.

The Amboseli Trust for Elephants now reports that poaching is definitely restarting in Kenya. As many as a dozen elephants have been killed recently in their area, their tusks removed.

China has been actively rebuilding Kenya’s roads. Most suspect this is because they soon will announce having found oil in Kenya. But recently the roadbuilding was suspended after the Kenyan government expelled several Chinese road building managers for having been discovered with new, raw ivory.

A happy elephant is relatively easy to approach. An angry elephant, or one that feels it is cornered, is incredibly dangerous. Must we now “back off” our elephant encounters on safari?