Guns, drugs and ivory: an elephants tale of survival


The African elephant is the largest terrestrial animal walking the Earth. Elephant herds wander through 37 countries in Africa and had a population of 5 million last century. Today, less then 415,000 are left due to the illegal ivory trade. The main culprits of this trade are armed groups, such as LRA, ISIS and Boko Haram who fund their weapons, food and travel by smuggling elephant ivory. 




The African Elephant -the largest animal to roam this planet- once thrived with over 5 million strong at the end of the last century. Now, after years of poaching, habitat destruction and fragmentation, only 400,000 remain. 

Most people do not know about the African elephants’ important role in the African ecosystems. Elephant droppings act as a fertilizer, which is import to improve the soil condition and allow vegetation to thrive in the harsh African environment. The elephant’s dropping serves a purpose for animals such as baboons and birds, who pick through the droppings for seeds and nuts. The nutrient-rich manure from the droppings replaces nutrients to depleted soils to help farmers improve their crops. Their droppings act as a form of seed dispersal which creates a high plant diversity. 


Elephants are known as keystone species. They control the tree population, allowing grasses to thrive and sustain grazing animals such as antelopes, wildebeests, and zebras. Smaller animals such as mice and shrews are able to burrow in the warm, dry soil of a savanna and predators such as lions and hyenas can feed on the healthy populations of grazing animals. Elephants are the keystone species that maintain the entire savanna ecosystem.

African elephants are much bigger than their Asian cousins, weighing over 7mT and living to a ripe old age of 70. Their range covers 37 countries and can be found in the rainforest, desert and savannah. Unlike other herds, elephants are lead by the oldest and largest female, called the matriarch. Elephants are incredibly intelligent, often seen using twigs to gather food, using fallen tree trunks as ladders and even remembering faces. I remember a story told by a young villager in the Masai Mara, Kenya, about how his uncle had been growing fruits and vegetables in his backyard. One night, a rouge male had entered the backyard to feast on the banquet. The uncle heard the commotion and approached the elephant in anger. He shot at the large intruder, but to his dismay, the elephant got away. Several years the later, the uncle was showing tourists a nearby watering hole, when suddenly a male elephant approached the water hole. As a lifted his trunk and directed his attention to the uncle, then picked up a tree trunk, ran over and continually beat him to death. As the tourists ran in horror for help, the male elephant stood motionless over the body, appearing to mourn the death of the villager. 

Elephants are incredibly empathetic creatures. They will mourn the death of any herd members, protect their young to the death and even flinch when a family member gets hurt. They organise team efforts, for example, all charging at predators to save their children. When elephants see the bones of another elephant, they will slow down, walk quietly and watch the grave site as they pass carefully by. Regardless of how empathetic, intelligent or protective the African elephant is, nothing seems to be stopping the unwavering persistence of the poachers.  

The booming illegal ivory trade kill more than 30,000 elephants per year. Currently in Africa, there are 4 different types of poachers. The first are subsistence farmers, that live in settled communities located near wildlife. At times this close proximity can lead to conflict between humans and wildlife and there are few governmental and non-governmental organisations that have solutions in place to prevent subsistence farmers from killing wildlife they feel threatened by. The second are commercial poachers. They are typically not specialized hunters. They kill local wildlife for their meat to be sold at local or regional markets. Illegal business contribute to the sale of millions of tonnes of bushmeat each year, but may be the sole source of high-protein food for many rural people. The third are criminal syndicates which are involved in distributing goods purchased from low-level poachers  to national and international buyers. Top syndicates operate ivory and rhino horn trafficking operations at an international level and bribe businesses and government officials at all levels. The most recent group to turn to poaching are armed insurgent groups and rebel forces. These groups include Boko Haram, ISIS and the Lord's Resistance Army (or LRA). They perpetrate human rights violations, war crimes, and claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on the people of sovereign nations. These groups are supplementing their income by committing large-scale poaching. 

In 2015, Bryan Christy, an investigative reporter and National Geographic Fellow, designed an artificial elephant tusk. This tusk was then used to hunt the people who kill elephants, learn what roads their ivory follows, which ports it leaves, what ships it travels on, what cities and countries it transits, and where it ends up. His artificial tusks lead him straight to the LRA, the Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted terrorists. The LRA are not only fuelling their own militia through illegal ivory trade, they are also assisting Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group responsible for widespread killings and the kidnappings of hundreds of Nigerian women and schoolgirls. In March 2015 Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to ISIS, and his group was renamed Islamic State’s West Africa Province, giving that Middle East terrorist group a foothold in West Africa. 

The biggest buyers of ivory are the Chinese, spending more than 1 billion dollars annually. But this net worth is falling. In 2014, ivory was worth approximately $2,142/kg. Today's price is $730/kg. With the help of the Chinese governments who have recently announced the closure of their domestic trade by the end of 2017, we are all hopeful that this demand for ivory continues to fall and elephants can continue to roam this harsh planet.  

There are several ways in which you can also help the elephants. The first is to never buy ivory, new or old. Secondly, coffee and timber crops are often grown in plantations that destroy elephant habitats. Make sure to buy Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber and certified fair trade coffee. The third is to support conservation efforts such as the International Elephant Foundation, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, African Wildlife Foundation and the Amboseli Elephant Research Project. You can also support conservation efforts by visiting elephants in the wild and donating directly to the rangers who are on the ground everyday, protecting these important ecosystems. Lastly, you can make a difference by boycotting circuses that use animals, and by boycotting zoos that offer insufficient space to allow elephants to live in social groups, and where the management style doesn’t allow them to be in control of their own lives. Together, we can make the world a better place. 




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