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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Alarming Rise in Elephant and Rhino Poaching

Symbolic ivory burning in 1989
Date: Jul 20 2009 | By: Maina

On Tuesday last week, Kenyan authorities seized a 300kg haul of elephant tusks and rhino horn hidden in coffins at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). This large haul, valued at approximately $ 1-million, is thought to have either come from Tanzania or South Africa and was headed for Laos. Officials of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) however speculate that the load’s final destination was indeed China, but through Laos, the de-facto ‘gateway to China’.

The KWS has been complaining about increasing ivory poaching since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed a one-off sale of ivory from southern Africa to China and Japan. The entry of China into the world trade in ivory was in itself a cause for alarm amongst many conservationists on account of what is viewed as China’s laissez-faire attitude towards wildlife - except the giant panda. There have been reports from the KWS and other organizations in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa indicating that there is definitely a rise in poaching for ivory and rhino horn.

According to the KWS, the rise in ivory poaching is partly caused by the CITES declaration to allow minimal trade from southern Africa. They say that this declaration created the illusion that it was OK to trade in ivory. If the number of seizures of ivory being witnessed today is anything to go by, then the KWS are right: the CITES declaration is indeed responsible for this mess.

It’s not just elephant poaching that is a problem. Just the previous week, a report was made public that indicates that rhino poaching has reached a 15 year high. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and the global conservation organization WWF, and their affiliated wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, told a CITES committee in a recent meeting that poachers in Africa and Asia are killing as many as two to three animals a week in some areas to meet a growing demand for the horns. What is more worrying is that this poaching is no longer a subsistence activity but it has now evolved into organized crime similar to cocaine and small arms rackets.

Elephants and rhinos are in a very dire situation as this new wave of wanton decimation of the majestic creatures picks up pace. We are witnessing the inevitable extinction of - in the case of the rhino - an evolutionary relic that generations upon generations of humans have marveled at; and the total loss of - in the case of the elephant - the gentle intelligent giant that has been the centre of almost all mythology.

Sentimental values aside, these are ‘keystone’ species that shape the environment that they occur in. Keeping a balance in the ecology of their habitat, and therefore determining the biological diversity of these habitats. The looming departure of these two could permanently alter ecosystems - in the most part - for the worst.

Poaching can do that, and this is going to happen in our lifetime.

A solution has to be found. We first have to stop lying to ourselves that there can be any sustainable trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn. We have seen this with our own eyes. It’s never going to happen. Having realized that, governments should tighten the noose on illegal traffic routes, cut down the poachers on sight, and increase punishment for poaching offenders. China and it’s Asian friends will need to be re-educated.

Dr Richard Leakey, while he was the head of KWS, led an elephant anti-poaching campaign back in the mid-1980s which brought down a large number of poaching rings. It has been 20 years since the symbolic burning of 12 tonnes of ivory - then worth about $3 million and from approximately 2000 dead elephants - at the height of the campaign. Today, elephant population that had dropped from 167, 000 in 1973 to a paltry 16,000 in 1989, now stand at 32,ooo. These numbers could easily start falling if nothing is done about the recent upsurge in poaching. Current wildlife officials could learn from this and step up the fight against poachers on the local level, while all conservationists push for the total ban on trade in ivory and rhino horn.

Again, China and the Asian world that still believes that rhino horn has medicinal value, and carvings from elephant ivory are ‘cute’, needs re-education.

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