Jumbo problems: The price of ivory and rhino horn continues to rise by the day, leading to increased poaching of elephants and rhinos. Growing affluence and economic growth in the Far East and South-East Asian countries has increased demand for natural resources, including wildlife and wildlife products.

Consequently, Kenya’s wildlife (especially rhinos, elephants, and the cat family) are among the contraband products in the illegal wildlife trade. But it is the elephant that has been in the news lately, poached by the dozen in the past few months.

Will the largest mammal walking the Earth today survive this spirited onslaught?

Barely a month ago, 10 poachers walked into Tsavo East National Park and killed 12 elephants, including a two-month-old calf. They pulled out the tusks and disappeared to elephants-don’t-know-where.

Only one suspect has since been apprehended. This is not the first time this is happening.

Elephants are under threat. They are paying an undue and violent price for possessing tusks. But, more directly, poachers are doing the continent and Kenya the worst form of disservice. The facts and statistics are as revolting as the inaction of several governments….

Species of elephants

Savannah (African elephant)

Asian (Indian elephant)

Elephants by numbers in Africa:

1979: 1.3 million

2012: Between 420,000 and 650,000. Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe account for over half of these.

Most recent report on African elephant poaching

Number killed illegally in CITES monitoring sites only in 2011: 17,000, but they say the figure could be over 25,000 in the entire Africa. CITES officials say the situation did not improve in 2012. In fact, the numbers could be higher.

Illegal ivory trade has more than doubled globally since 2007 and is now three times larger than it was in 1998.

The Kenyan situation

Kenya’s current elephant population is estimated to be between 35,000 and 39,000. From 1979 to 1984 (15 years), Kenya lost 88 per cent of its elephants, with the numbers falling from 153,000 to 19,000.

In 1989, the CITES ban on all international ivory trade was passed and put in effect in 1990. The numbers grew but the ban was lifted after five years in exchange for a nine-year moratorium on ivory sales.

Hunters on cars and bikes

According to current KWS figures, Kenya lost 578 elephants in 2011 and 656 in 2012. It is hard to tell how serious the poaching business in Kenya is, but these facts on arrest and recovery provided by KWS can shed some light on it:

In the past one year, KWS recovered 1,677 pieces of ivory that weighed a total of 4,644kg and arrested 1,949 suspects. They also recovered from the poachers 80 riffles and 2,777 rounds of ammunition, and impounded 46 vehicles, 38 motorbikes, and 46 bicycles.

Major elephant tusk source countries in Africa

The major source countries are Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Other African nations like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe also engage in the trade but not in the levels of the first three. These same countries also act as conduits.

What is it with ivory?

“Ivory” is a collective term for the tusks and teeth of different animals. Generally, ivory products (tusks included) are used to show affluence and exoticism.

The products made out of them include jewellery, carvings and sculptures, billiard balls, piano keys, and enamel plates.

How tusks are disguised during transportation

After being removed from the body of the elephant, tusks are mostly cut into small pieces and put together with herbs and traditional medicine by poachers and traffickers to fool airport authorities and security agents that they are transporting African medicine, or sometimes they are packed together with fresh fruits like avocado and labelled as fruits being exported.

On some occasions, the ivory is packed and labelled as curio materials like carvings and sculptures. Braver traffickers or those who are sure about their security arrangements will transport the tusks as a whole, driving them in their trucks or just placing them in a container and walking through customs and police checks while bribing their way through.

Airports favoured by ivory traffickers

Not every port or airport can be conducive for moving such contraband. Here is the KWS list of where traffickers troop.

Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Port of Mombasa

Ethiopia: Bole International Airport (Addis Ababa)

South Africa: Oliver Tambo International Airport

The reason these specific ports and airports are preferred is their ease of reaching the Far East, where demand for ivory is high. Other routes include fishing vessels between Africa and Asia, and rivers within Africa.

Tusk and ivory product destinations

  China
  Thailand
  Malaysia
  Vietnam
  Japan
  United Arab Emirates
  Singapore
  Philippines

Elephant facts

  2,268kg to 6,350kg: Weight of a fully grown male.
  2.5 metres to 4 metres: Height of a grown bull.
  60 years: Life expectancy.
  22 months: Gestation period.
  85 centimetres to 1 metre: Calf height.
  91kg to 120kg: Calf weight.
  5kg: Weight of elephant brain, which is almost similar to that of humans in terms of complexity.
  The trunk: A fusion of the nose and upper lip that contains over 150,000 separate muscles and can lift up to 350kg.
  The tusk: Is actually modified incisor teeth in the upper jaw. The largest recorded tusk was 3.02 metres long.
  The feet: Circular with five toes. The foot has a spongy sole which causes the elephant to walk with minimal noise. Elephants cannot jump.
  The ears: Apart from hearing, they are also used for heat loss since they are heavily intravenous.
  Musth: A four-to-six-week period in male elephants where they become dangerously aggressive due to overproduction of testosterone.
  Social life: Elephants live as social groups with a marked leadership hierarchy. They can recognise a member of their group even after years of separation.

A checkered history

Jumbos in Hollywood

In the world of movie making, elephants have often been used for various roles. There are animations, especially in cartoons and children or even adult movies.

But Hollywood has also in the past produced some big movies using trained and living elephants.

Here is are a select few:

  Ele, My Friend
  Tarzan
  Elephant Boy
  Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale
  Water for Elephants

Prominent past and present elephant hunters

King George V: Was king of the United Kingdom from 1910 and reigned for 25 years. He was an avid hunter who killed several animals, including tigers and elephants, during his hunting trips.

Theodore Roosevelt: The 26th president of the United States was a cowboy hunter. He made trips to East Africa on his safari hunting escapades and is said to have brought down different wild game, including elephants.

Ernest Hemingway: This famous American writer embarked on his own hunting safari that saw him travel to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Congo. The expedition inspired him to write The Green Hills of Africa and Snows of Kilimanjaro.

King Juan Carlos of Spain: Has been on the throne from 1975 and has been hunting periodically for a long time. In 2012, he went to Botswana and photos of him posing with a dead elephant leaked out to the media. He apologised to the public

The unknown elephant history

Execution by elephants was practised in the past in Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Rome, and Carthage. In Rome and Carthage, it was especially used to deal with mutinous soldiers. The elephant would either roll on the culprit or step on his/her head, as directed.

War machines: Two things made elephants stand out as war machines. One is that they are tall, hence giving the rider an advantage, and the second is that elephants can trample on the enemy or throw them off with their trunk, unlike horses, which prefer to jump over the enemy.

Royal symbols: In Thailand and other Asian countries, elephants were used as symbols of royal power and authority. The fact that elephants can be domiciled and trained into following the orders of the ruler was good for bolstering the image of the leader.

The dangers that lie ahead

  Better equipped, sophisticated, and more organised poachers and
traffickers.
  Poaching and trafficking networks.
  Difficulty in enforcing anti-poaching laws.
  Loss of elephant habitat in Africa. Currently, 29 per cent of elephant range is affected by infrastructure development, rapid urbanisation, and human population encroachment. By 2050, this encroachment is projected to rise to 63 per cent, and that will come at a price. In the past one year, there has been 1,035 compensation claims entailing 164 death-by-wildlife claims and 872 injury claims. The total amount paid out to the relations of the victims or victims themselves was Sh76.3 million, with a further Sh5.9 million yet to be released by the Treasury for approved payments.

Did you know?

Jumbo, born in 1861, was among the largest elephants to have walked the earth. He was shipped from French Sudan in Africa to France, where he began life as a circus actor. He died at the age of 25 after being knocked down by a train in Canada. A statue today stands in St Thomas, Ontario, in his honour.

Facts and figures: Kenya Wildlife Service, Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES), World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Courtesy of nation.co.ke

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