Inside the Global Industry That's Slaughtering Africa's Elephants

The scale of poaching is a criminal horror. Why Obama should make it a priority issue -- in his meeting with China's Xi Jinping this week and beyond
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Members of the Pilanesberg National Park Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) stand guard as conservationists and police investigate the scene of a rhino poaching incident April 19, 2012. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

"Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!"

- Pope Francis, March 19

Destruction and Death, as Pope Francis offered this homily in St. Peter's Square, had just left the scene in the central African nation of Chad, where in a single night in mid-March 89 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. Reports described the ivory poachers as 50 or so men on camel and horseback, speaking Arabic, armed with AK-47s, and presumed to be the same band that came over from Sudan last year to execute more than 450 elephants in Cameroon -- on that foray, dispatching their victims with rocket-propelled grenades.

Unless Western and African nations can turn things around fast, in order to protect the 400,000 or so left, then the elephants of Africa, pretty much all of them, will soon be gone.

In Chad, near the Cameroon border to the south, they left their mark by sparing not even the 33 pregnant females and 15 elephant calves, and by hacking off the tusks while some of the creatures were still alive. There were four park rangers on duty that night, short a fifth guard who was murdered by poachers last year. But they were far away at the time, and, in any case, would have been helpless against overwhelming force. Among other problems, the elephant preserve is about 850 square miles, a big stretch of creation for just four guys to protect.

East, west, and central - everywhere there are elephants in Africa, there are "poachers," a word that now seems far too small for the enormity of their offense. And if we want to take seriously those words from Francis -- a new pontiff named for the saint who despised cruelty, whose very first sermon spoke of "respecting each of God's creatures" -- this would be a very good place to focus our attention. Unless Western and African nations can turn things around fast, to protect the 400,000 or so left, then the elephants of Africa, pretty much all of them, will be gone.

A United Nations Rapid Response Assessment (the UN may be slow to act, but the assessments come quick) puts last year's losses around 32,000 African elephants, as compared to 2011 casualties of 25,000, reporting "mass and gruesome killings of elephants." From the air, as correspondent Bryan Christy of National Geographic writes from Cameroon, it looks like this: "[T]he scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene - you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together."

From the air, too, is how they're often slaughtered -- in numbers, Christy thinks, perhaps double those UN estimates. It's guesswork, more speculative than ever as poachers pick up the pace in military-style operations that now include firing their AK-47s from helicopters. Like the more advanced weaponry of the killers, their night-vision goggles and other such assets, and the sheer number of them aswarm in Africa, the helicopters signal yet another bad turn in this old struggle. There's big money in ivory, a boundless market for it, and everyone knows where most of it is heading.

It's China, where status seekers simply must have ivory trinkets, jewelry, and statues to proclaim their new wealth. Apparently, nothing in Chinese says "I've arrived" like a carved tusk, and they go for about $1,300 a pound or more these days -- many times what it used to be -- or as much as $50,000 for a sizable pair of tusks on the street in China. Tusks on the market are getting smaller because the elephants are dying younger. All but a few with fully grown tusks have vanished. A ton of ivory now -- and smuggled shipments actually deal in such quantities -- involves a lot more grief in the taking.

The government of Kenya reports that 90 percent of ivory smugglers caught there are Chinese citizens. One fellow was picked up recently with 439 pieces of ivory on him, and in a Nairobi courtroom fined less than a dollar for each. Kenyan authorities vow to enact harsher penalties to "fight poachers at all levels to save our elephants," and other governments had better do the same, quickly. It is getting out by every route, at airports, in large containers at seaports on either coast of Africa, in small fishing vessels, or simply by mail, and most of the ivory is bound for China. The rest goes to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian friends of the United States, in routine disregard of the ivory ban that the United States led a generation ago. Africa's finite supply is meeting Asia's furious demand at a rate of nearly a hundred kills every 24 hours. The death count, that one night in Chad, is the continent's daily average.

As with other wild animals, managerial talk of simply "conserving the species" can miss the point, as if they are to be thought of and cared about only in the collective. But taking the basic numbers -- some 12 million elephants south of the Sahara in the early 1900's, versus 400,000 today and probably closer to 350,000 -- this is a species killed off to about 3 percent of its population in the space of a hundred years, less time than the combined normal life spans of a single elephant and her mother. You would never know from those numbers how universally appreciated they are, the esteem in which these "charismatic mega-fauna" are held in every part of the world, at least by people who can look at an elephant and see more than ivory to sell or a "trophy" to mount. The mania for ivory among carvers, collectors, and well-to-do buyers in Asia is especially hard to comprehend, since no work of man could begin to match the glorious beauty of an elephant. They cherish ivory for its "purity," once the blood is washed off.

Granting an inexorable historical decline under the pressure of Africa's human population, even apart from poaching and hunting, a sacrifice of 97 percent has been exacted already. Yet we still hear calls for more "culling," never more galling than when they come from Western intellectuals who take notice, now and then, of the plight of the elephant only to cite it as yet another example of how unenlightened humanity can benefit from their economic theories. Saving the elephants, as one of these arguments runs, is a misguided and sentimental cause: the real problem here is not is not butchery, but disorganized butchery. It all just needs to be a little more systematic. "In essence, elephants need to be treated like cattle," writes Doug Bandow, a longtime fellow at the CATO Institute in a recent Forbes op-ed. "Unfortunately, episodic [ivory] sales have only limited benefits, generating modest revenues while failing to satisfy ongoing demand." Therefore, "the West should reopen the ivory trade," creating "a genuine market in ivory," while also meeting demand for "other elephant parts."

There's a nice sendoff for the noble elephant: If only mankind had treated them all "like cattle," owning and exploiting them to maximum efficiency -- and all for a frivolous luxury item. Never mind that in all of Africa tourism of the non-lethal kind is the second-largest hard currency earner after oil, and that all of this slaughter amounts to a near-complete liquidation of the greatest natural asset sub-Saharan Africa had going for it. Never mind that tusks take decades to mature, growing all through the lifetime of an elephant, and ivory providers and consumers are not exactly known for their patient adherence to the rhythms of nature. And, above all, erase from your mind any thought of the complex social structures, bonds of family, intelligence, and emotions of elephants already dying en masse in conditions little different from some infernal abattoir. All creatures of the earth must pull their weight in obedience to the unsparing laws of the market. That's the verdict from the sunny offices of a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

The farming model works, we're told, in the case of elephant trophy hunting. For a lively afternoon in the forest, Western hunters, many from America, pay 15 or 20 grand -- as compared, if we have to put a price on it, with an estimated $800,000 as an ongoing tourism draw, living out an elephant's allotted 60 or 70 years in peace. When the time is right for each in turn, argues Bandow, why not shoot them for the ivory, too? Our man at CATO sees a day when "a population of 500,000 elephants could naturally generate $6.7 billion worth of ivory annually," meaning, "naturally," that every last one gets cut up in the end.

It's quite an ambitious plan: They get owned and disowned all at once. But it's a long way from protecting "God's plan inscribed in nature," and I think I'll go with Francis on this one. Culling, a suspect term in any context, should be withdrawn in shame from all further discussion of these creatures and their fate. No matter what claims are made for killing them, reason and fairness will be on their side. If any wild species can be said to have endured enough at the hands of cruel and arrogant men, it is the elephant.

Among the surviving herds, even in places that once offered sanctuary, elephants live in such fear that they can now be observed avoiding roads and waterholes they once frequented and people they once trusted. Even these most sensitive of wild creatures could never begin to fathom all of the human appetites and designs that have joined to cause their suffering. They could use a little more guile now than nature gave them, but they know what they need to know. Their protectors in Africa describe a state of panic and high alert in every herd. They have memories as good as a map, aware of well guarded areas, and they "don't want to move outside unless they have to," explains Frank Pope of Save the Elephants, a group in Nairobi founded by the renowned zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. "When the urge to reach a new area becomes too strong, they'll often wait for nightfall before making a rapid streak across the landscape until they reach another safe zone."

It's the rare juvenile who has not witnessed the slaughter of a mother, sibling, or other family member, if not everyone they knew. The great souls in Africa who have taken in the orphans tell us that the calves have nightmares, and sometimes, no matter how much care and comfort are offered, just never recover from what they have seen and lost. For all of the elephants, writes J. Michael Fay of National Geographic, their only defense is "to run for their lives at every crack of a gun. All this horror so a human being somewhere can satisfy the desire for ivory."

Presented by

Matthew Scully is a former senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush and author of Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

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