Ivory Gold

Nellie the elephant packs her trunk and lyrically heads off from her decidedly distasteful existence in the circus. There is a real danger that this child’s song could become a metaphor for the extinction of elephants before our children sing it in turn to their offspring. Elephants are endangered and protected under legislation from the UN regulatory body CITES.

African elephant populations have dwindled to a fraction of what they once were. In the 1900s, there was about 10 million roaming the continent. Now there are about 600,000 African elephants in total. Elephants have a wide range and numbers (difficult to quantify) may actually be much lower. In the 1970s and 1980s elephant numbers were decimated and poaching was rife throughout Africa. In 1989 an international ban on trading elephant products including ivory, hides (used for cowboy boots) and meat was introduced. Since then numbers seem to have stabilized and there are reports that they have increased locally in some parts of Southern Africa. Some countries claim their herds are increasing by up to 6% per annum and are unsustainable. They want to cull to control herds and the ivory trade ban to end.

Elephants are among the most beloved of animals. They are many children’s favourite animal and often the primary reason for that first zoo visit. Their legendary intelligence and memory, distinctive wrinkly appearance and social sensitivity have helped cultivate a special mystical bond with humans. This bond is further cemented by endearing images of an elephant’s genial loping stride, playfulness and that swaying trunk. There are three species of elephant and all three are endangered. Two live on the African continent (savannah and forest elephant) and the other is Asian. Savannah elephants are largest with mature bulls growing to a massive six tons. They need to eat over 400lb of food and spend most of the day doing it.

Elephants have big brains and their memory is legendary. They have amassed essential survival skills such as remembering waterholes and food sources as well as avoiding places of danger. The matriarch of the herd is known as the keeper of the memory and she passes on her knowledge.

The trunk is a versatile elongated proboscis with up to 60,000 muscles. Elephants use them to pick up small objects, as well as move large branches. Trunks play an important role in touch, which reinforces strong family bonding.

Elephants use a complex series of social communication signals. With a highly developed sense of smell, they use chemical signals to communicate emotional and sexual states. An elephant’s air conditioner ears are like fingerprints with every notch and mark an animal’s individuality. This acute listening device is used to interpret a sophisticated range of high and low pitched sounds. Many are beyond the threshold of human hearing and can travel up to four miles.

Elephants have peculiar lungs that show their closer relation to aquatic dugongs and manatees than land mammals. They can swim very well underwater and have no problem crossing flooded rivers with only the trunk like a periscope above water.

Elephants also display strong “human” emotions that are unique in the animal kingdom, particularly with respect to dead animals and will mourn their loss. The myth of vast elephant graveyards has never been verified, but they will help try to revive dying elephants and sometimes cover a carcass with leaves and branches. If they pass a dead elephant from another herd, they stop and pay their respects. A mourning cow will stay with her dead calf for several days.

Elephants are what ecologists call keystone species. Many other species depend on the elephant for their survival. Their inefficient digestive system and the vast amounts of dung manure they produce help plants by dispersing seeds and providing fertiliser. By their so-called destructive ringbarking for tasty phloem, uprooting and branch crunching they transform woodland habitats into grasslands. They do this and then migrate onto other woodlands leaving them to regenerate in a cycle of nature. Elephants also burrow in dry riverbeds for water sources and other wildlife benefit.

Human encroachment into elephant habitats impacts elephant populations the most. Land is the most contentious aspect of wildlife conservation. The human African population increases by 4% annually. Food production requires more and more farmland. To protect farmland and stocks, barriers are erected. This means less available land for roaming wildlife. The elephant range becomes fragmented and the so-called destructive effects of elephants are magnified. Few farmers get compensation for land and property damage. Many locals view elephants as pests and a considerable danger. They then have a negative view of elephants and don’t gain anything from their protection. Traditional trespassing deterrents such as drums, fires or tree trunk barriers become ineffective as the elephants become inured to them. Electric fences are expensive and wire is often stolen to make traps. Novel methods include cultivating bees or growing chillies. Elephants just don’t like bees. They are also sensitive to the chemical (capsaicin) that makes chllies hot and it makes them cry.

The ivory trade caused an even more rapid decline than human encroachment. It flourished in the 1970s and 80s and huge herds were often killed en masse by poachers using automatic weapons. Tusks were harvested to feed a burgeoning worldwide ivory demand.

Ivory has been used in sculpture for millennia. The oldest example is a mammoth ivory bird sculpture (looks a bit like a cormorant) found in Germany and dates to 30,000 years ago. Ivory is malleable and durable, with a smooth texture and mellow colour. It is prized for sculpted pieces that require very fine detail.

African savannah elephants have larger tusks (both sexes have tusks but males are larger). They are like our teeth (made of dentate) and start growing when the elephant is two years old. They grow up to on average to 100Ib (the largest ever was 214Ib).

The Far East is the biggest ivory market. Despite the ban on international trade, there is a considerable illegal black market. In China, where 50% of illegal ivory ends up, it was recently found for sale in a Cantonese jade market. Antique ivory (over 100 years old) can still be traded with a permit, but illegal ivory can be made look “older” and sold in antique markets. Illegal ivory is even sold on the Internet.

Ivory stockpiles are another thorny issue. If an elephant is already dead, then why shouldn’t a poor country profit from selling its tusks and hides. Most African countries have stockpiled ivory since the ban was introduced. In 33 countries, there may be up to 500 tons of stockpiled ivory. Many tusks come from the capture of illegal poaches or from animals that died naturally or were culled (for example “problem animals”). In 1999, there was a once-off massive sale of $5 million dollars worth of ivory stockpiles from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia to Japan.

A regulated ivory trade is not easy to manage. There are no marks on the ivory to say where it has come from and whether it is poached ivory or part of a quota. Using DNA analysis it is possible to track ivory to source elephant populations, but it is difficult to regulate at end market. Illegal ivory could easily slip through the net, as it does so even now with the ban in place.

Some African nations claim that money generated from ivory sales can be ploughed back into elephant conservation and into local communities. This is sustainable use and the elephant commodity is used to drive their conservation. In a similar way elephant hides and meat could be traded internationally. Letting local people benefit from sales of elephant products is often mooted as the best way to manage overpopulation and discourage poaching. Elephants then have an economic value to them to local populations. This did not happen before the ban when the ivory wars between poachers and anti-poaching authorities left many people dead as well as elephants.

A debt for ivory swap could releases ivory stockpiles and help pay for wildlife protection. So African countries in substantial debt could trade debt for their ivory stockpiles. Unfortunately, this creates a legal market for ivory abroad and makes it easier to dispose of illegal stocks and potentially trigger an increase in poaching.

Ecotourism is the most obvious revenue stream for countries with rich populations of elephants. It brings money to the local economy and ideally some goes back into wildlife conservation. It also generates a good revenue stream for the locals if involved. Not all ecotourism practices though are beneficial and some are destructive. Bringing large numbers of tourists into a fragile environment without an adequate infrastructure can do more harm to wildlife than good. Creating permanent waterholes primarily for wildlife viewing can help minimize the impact of viewing and avoids vehicles chasing elephants to get them to mock charge. On the other hand it may encourage elephants that normally migrate to stay put at permanent water and thus concentrates their habitat destructive effects in one area.

There is no more emotive issue than hunting elephants for trophies. CITES currently permits the export of about 1,000 African elephants as trophies annually as the ivory is not considered a commercial export (each country received a specific quota).

Hunting is very lucrative to the local economy and for killing one bull elephant a hunter will pay $20,000 (not all they will spend on a hunt). It seems little to sacrifice say a quota of 200 elephants annually in a total elephant population of say a few hundred thousand. Two hundred elephants would yield a substantial amount of money. However, hunting does considerable damage to the herd bloodline. Hunters pay big money for prime bull trophies. The herd loses the future breeding potential of these mature bulls, but they also have an important role in the social hierarchy. Mature bulls teach the younger bulls’ life skills and keep them in check. If you remove them, then bulls don’t learn how to behave. Similarly, you remove a matriarch from a herd and the younger females don’t look after their offspring properly. Hunting makes elephants more wary of humans and will make elephant viewing safaris less successful. In economic terms, one hunter is worth more than 100 wildlife-viewing tourists. Killing one prime bull has more of a detrimental effect than thousands of tourists looking at him.

In parts of some countries in Southern Africa there are reports that local elephant populations are, for example in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, unmanageable. If the elephant range is contained, then overpopulation can occur in areas where there is a permanent water supply. This problem can become especially acute in the dry season when animals from a great distance converge. Elephants confined to a park area with lots of water will not migrate, as they don’t need to. They breed very successfully and natural population controls are eliminated. Elephant populations swell rapidly despite their long gestation period and low birthrate. Their transformation of woodland habitats on riverbanks then becomes permanent, as there is no time for regeneration. Elephants need to migrate from these areas if the environmental balance is to be restored.

There are five management strategies that are being adopted to manage this perceived overpopulation: parkland expansion, translocation, contraception and culling.

Expanding protected parklands seems the perfect strategy to ease local overpopulation. Giving more land to wildlife doesn’t necessarily mean less land for farmers, but perhaps this perception is the greatest hurdle to overcome. Less than 20% of wild elephants have any of their range within protected parkland.

In some areas of Africa, they are struggling to keep viable elephant populations, so why not just move them into empty bush in other countries where stocks have diminished. Elephants have been moved successfully from Southern Africa to Angola and Mozambique. Moving big animals safely has its physical complications and costs. Translocated elephants can exhibit post-traumatic stress and display anger towards humans. Whole families need to be moved because of their complex social structure. Moving orphaned animals has been successful, but if you remove a young elephant from its family then you effectively orphan it. Translocation is a very temporary solution and doesn’t really solve overpopulation long term.

African populations of elephants have very low estrogen and progesterone levels, which suggests they may be very sensitive to reproductive hormones and pheromones. Male bulls in heat (musth) display incredibly macho behaviour and are often labelled troublesome animals. Rescinding the ban on ivory trading would definitely change the local definition of “troublesome”. With their tusks becoming lucrative again they are much more likely to be culled. Interfering with the hormonal balance of these animals can have disastrous consequences, but contraception is still an option to control population numbers. Some initial success has been attained with an immunocontraceptive that does not affect reproductive hormone levels. Contraceptives are a long-term solution, as elephants are long lived and slow reproducers. Administering contraception effectively is expensive and also difficult because the elephants range great distances.

Culling of animals to control populations should really be the last resort in any endangered animal. As with hunting the selective culling of individual elephants creates imbalance in the herd structure. The most effective use of culling is to take out whole herds and that is expensive as well as abhorrent.

The fate of the African elephant may hang in the balance. They need more room to roam. Even if the ivory trade is very strictly regulated, poaching will again become rife and that could be the death knell for elephants. The economic as well as ecological value of these wonderful creatures needs to be considered as part of management. CITES meets again this month in Bangkok to discuss endangered species and elephants will again be on the agenda.



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