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Revisiting history and the fate of the elephant: Excerpts from a 1992 book

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

An elephant skull at Manyara Ranch, northern Tanzania, where elephant poaching has been reduced thanks in part to a canine unit that, in addition to anti-poaching, also helps solve crimes such as theft in villages.  Photo: Jamal Fadhil / Honeyguide

The Fate of the Elephant, a book by Douglas Chadwick, reads like it was written today. “History can be a study in irony,” Chadwick wrote. His book—commissioned by National Geographic—was published in 1992 by The Sierra Club. It was in that same year that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met for the first time since the international ivory trade ban was agreed upon in 1989 at the 7th meeting of CITES parties. CITES was established in the early 1970s to regulate trade in animals and plants in a sustainable way.

The ban on trading elephant ivory internationally came at a time when, in Chadwick’s words, “Ivory turned into an international underground currency, outlaw capital, spawning webs of corruption from remote rural villages to urban centers throughout the globe.”

After the ban, and contrary to predictions of a contingent of southern African countries, “the price of elephant teeth did not soar as soon as the commodity became outlawed elsewhere. On the contrary, the price plummeted at once and continued to sink by degrees for months afterward,” Chadwick wrote.

This meant that, while poaching did not stop everywhere, elephant populations got reprieve and started to recover across much of Africa.

Tuskless female elephant in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa, where most of the female elephants are tuskless. Tusklessness is expected to increase where there is heavy poaching for ivory and population bottlenecks. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Before that first meeting of CITES since the international ivory ban, six southern African countries lobbied to trade again in elephant parts. This was less than two years (and about one elephant gestation period) since the ban had come into effect. These countries—Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, and Zambia—wanted to sell elephant hides and meat, not yet resume trade in ivory. But when of the then 112 member parties to CITES only two—Japan and Switzerland—supported their proposal, the southern African block withdrew it, and, as Chadwick chronicles, “threatened to establish trade in elephant products—including ivory—among themselves and the more than fifty nations that were not signatories to CITES.”

This same debate is seething now, ahead of next month’s 18th meeting of CITES, which now has 183 signatories or parties. Much of Africa, which is still recovering from a recent wave of poaching that spiked in 2011, is more partial to precaution. Southern African countries, some of which gained approval to sell ivory about a decade ago and did so shortly before the last wave of poaching started, would like to sell ivory again.

Preparing to remove tusks from a young bull elephant killed as part of “problem animal control” in Udzungwa Mountains National Park, southern Tanzania. Such killings can be reduced to nil with mitigation projects that deter elephants from farms. Photo: Paulo Mndeme / Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP) 

The argument now is the same as described by Chadwick in his 1992 book, “This southern African contingent believed strongly in using trophy hunting of elephants and culling as management tools and raising money for wildlife programs through the sale of legally taken ivory tusks.”

But, as before, the mystery is why when relatively insignificant amounts of money are raised from legally obtained ivory and some of these countries still suffer from illicit ivory dealing and other illegal wildlife trade.

The bent of other regions of Africa towards caution and keeping trade banned was evident back in 1992 in the testimony of Tanzania’s director of wildlife at the time, Constantius Mlay, “Ninety-four percent of the ivory taken in Tanzania is poached. That leaves only 6 percent yielding money for government coffers. So why should the killing be allowed to continue? Tanzania had 100,000 elephants in the Selous Game Reserve area alone in 1976. A decade later, in 1986, there were just 55,000; and in 1989, only 27,000 – halved again, this time in just three years.”

In 2013, Selous’ elephant population was estimated at 13,000. Its “ecological benchmark” or population size estimated in a zero poaching scenario is more than 100,000, according to a group of scientists, who have estimated such benchmarks for sites across Africa.

People concerned with elephants in southern Tanzania gather at Neema Crafts, Iringa, to discuss human-elephant coexistence. The meeting was supported with a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s African Elephant Conservation Fund. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Mlay had gone on to say: “Poaching on such a scale encourages lawlessness in general. It breeds social instability. If you like the idea of keeping ivory legal, wait until your countries are invaded by paramilitary forces with automatic weapons. This is too great a price to pay. Besides, the CITES gathering is supposed to be about saving species, not about saving businesses, not about saving face…

It was an impassioned speech. But it was countered by a delegate from Zimbabwe. Rowan Martin, who has since proposed the establishment of a Central Ivory Selling Organization based on Zimbabwe’s (failed) diamond model, said that “pulling the trigger” is the only way to keep elephants from “over-populating” landscapes. According to Martin, “Do we manage for what elephants need or what pleases people? I myself prefer a nice acacia forest with a few elephants over an elephant-blasted landscape, and I’m prepared to knock a few elephants on the head to achieve it. All life is an experiment. You set up management so you learn from it and keep modifying and tinkering.”

Like Chadwick, I wrestle with this view. In his epilogue, Chadwick wrote that, “We cannot tuck species away in little preserves as if we were storing pieces in a museum, then come back a century later and expect to find them all still there.”

There is one additional pretext put forth by southern African countries to trade ivory today: “conflict” between elephants and people. The use of the term “conflict” has become mainstream world-over to describe interactions between wild animals and people that result in loss of life (of one or both) or loss of property. Human-elephant “conflict” (acronymized as HEC) is being used by Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe to leverage legal ivory sales. The argument goes something like, “We need to sustainably use our elephants because there are too many of them” which stands in stark contrast to “We need to sustainably use our rhinos because of their declining populations.”

The upcoming meeting of CITES was, until recently, set to convene in Sri Lanka, an Asian elephant range state, until tragedy in the form of terrorist attacks struck the country on Easter of this year. The meeting will now be held in Geneva, removed from the challenges of conserving our world’s largest land mammal.

Tuskless female elephant with her baby in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

As delegates from 183 CITES parties gear up to meet soon, may they consider how to best break from a repeating history. May they consider less heavy-handedness. May they think about our shifting baselines, the extents to which the giants of our planet have already been diminished. “West Africa, which once hosted at least a million elephants, was now left with only isolated groups numbering, at most, 19,000,” Chadwick wrote 30 years ago.

And may CITES delegates seek compromise and cooperation at wildlife-relevant scales and across boundaries, and not risk losing the wide-ranging elephant that, not unlike us, engineers landscapes.  

During the course of my travels, the percentage of elephant habitats unbalanced by serious civil unrest, if not outright war, was startling. I kept wondering: How can we hope to get along with other species when we are doing so poorly at getting along with one another?” 

A National Geographic film crew documents use of chili-oil and beehive fences built by farmers at the border of Udzungwa Mountains National Park to keep elephants out of farms. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

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