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

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GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons poses next to an elephant he killed in Zimbabwe. (YouTube)

You could argue, I suppose, that a lot of low-lifes killing a lot of animals isn't news. Some pretty ruthless practices are tolerated, even licensed, here in America. And as for the aerial gunning from helicopters, if we're going to be objective about it, maybe the poachers have been studying the wolf-management techniques of Alaska Fish and Game.

Recall, too, that not every crack of a gun the elephants hear comes from poachers. The model that advocates of legalizing the ivory trade like to cite is Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, wherein usually captive elephants, giraffes, lions, hippos, and other animals -- baited and with slender chance of escape -- are shot in reserves that are essentially big-game trophy farms. For a few snapshots of the "harvest" -- a euphemism that sport hunters these days understandably prefer -- search the names Kenneth Behring, Bob Parsons, and Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. They are among thousands of Americans and Europeans who venture off each year to Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, or South Africa to slay the ultimate prize of the sportsman's "Big Five" -- guided by professional trackers, guaranteed an easy kill, possessed by an obsession that even most hunters regard with disgust. They offer philanthropic-sounding pretexts -- it's all about "conservation" -- in the timeless way of Africa's exploiters: They big-heartedly "donate the meat" of an elephant carcass, as if devouring it all by themselves were an option. They rushed in, from across the Atlantic, to save a village from "rogue elephants." Uncannily, the rogues are always the ones with the biggest "trophy tusks," marked and even advertised for hunting well in advance of the hero's arrival.

Even if our sole concern were ivory hunting, these people aren't clean. Safari Club International, a 55,000-member outfit based in Tucson that promotes competitive trophy hunting worldwide, cites some "indirect benefits" and "downstream activities" of sportive elephant hunting to "ivory manufacturers, etc." The professional trackers who escort Safari Club members around forest and savannah require, we're told, training that involves killing a few elephants just for practice, and apparently that ivory is left there for the taking. The group's position is further explained in a paper issued under the guise of being an "educational" and indeed "humanitarian" organization, a tax-exempt, charitable status actually granted to the Safari Club Foundation by the Internal Revenue Service. Under the catchy title "Ivory Accumulation and Disposal in Zimbabwe," we learn that "ivory is a gift of nature"; it's a "resource," and "every country has the right to use their natural resources to their best advantage. ... Africa has few advantages. Ivory is one of them."

Note to the IRS: Forget the Tea Party groups and have a look at these people. Their point here seems to be that rich American trophy hunters and their guides will gladly add a few tusks to the pile, gratis. It sounds like a "gift," all right. They'll help on the "accumulation" end of things, and leave disposal to the best judgment of wildlife officials in Zimbabwe -- a notorious supplier of ivory to China. It's all no doubt legal, and it certainly squares with the ethical standards of the Mugabe regime.

What are the ivory "status symbols" everybody's so wild to grab in China, anyway, but "trophies" by another name? In your typical Chinese ivory boutique, Alex Shoumatoff tells us in Vanity Fair, "the main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status." That's half the room at Safari Club banquets, with the difference that there is no confusion among these collectors about just how the status symbol was obtained. They saw the terrified animal, they heard the roars and cries themselves, and they're already booked to go back for more.

Recreational elephant hunters are, if anything, only more contemptible than the ivory poachers for lacking anything even resembling a rational motive. They frighten and kill for the malicious pleasure of it, even as all the "jumbos" and "big tuskers," in the inane vernacular of safari journals, vanish from the earth -- and, indeed, as all of the Big Five near the Big Zero. An Internet search will turn up pictures of them posing and grinning next to the elephants they shot, and in the case of Bob Parsons, then CEO of, a video record of his hunt in Zimbabwe, showing how this particular humanitarian lay in wait for the hungry bull to come for food. The man had just made a billion dollars from his company, and what better way to celebrate one's own good fortune in life than to go out and kill something? Something big, to suit the occasion. The pictures are all part of the thrill, the pornography of bloodlust, and trophy hunters actually post this evidence themselves, never getting quite the reaction they expected from normal, sane people. An impartial observer from Africa or China, hearing Americans condemn the ivory poachers and traders, would be entitled to state as a rule that if their creeps can't kill elephants for trinkets, our creeps can't kill them for trophies.

Mostly, though, for all of the ones "conserved" via the taxidermy shop, it is the "imbecile rapacity" of ivory hunters, as Joseph Conrad described the condition in The Heart of Darkness, that has led to this last stand of the African elephants. And their ordeal seems like a larger event in the life of the world, ecologically and morally, than media coverage and commentary here in America would suggest. In Africa, champions of the elephants convey a despairing sense that not enough Americans are paying attention. You have to spend a while on YouTube to learn that in African villages and cities there have been protests and marches, with large crowds and banners declaring, "Ivory Belongs to Elephants Only." All the while, a cable news viewer in America could be excused for thinking that the only development of note out of Africa lately is that a celebrity track star in Johannesburg has been charged with murdering his model girlfriend.

Parsons, come to think of it, did rate quite a bit of on-air discussion in March of 2011 when his video hit the Internet. But if one man's mayhem at the expense of one elephant is news, why isn't continental mayhem at the expense of all of them? American news producers, if they're following the crisis at all, perhaps wave it off as just too confusing and depressing -- and, well, so 1980s. We can expect elegiac, two-minute segments ten years from now on "The Last Elephant." Why not get on the story right now, while it might still do some good?

It's striking as well how little we hear of this epic crime against nature from environmentalist groups in America that used to be associated with such causes, and even began with such causes. There are a few, and lately they've enlisted some star power to try helping the elephants -- including, to their great credit, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kristen Davis, and a Chinese starlet named Li Bingbing. But mostly the causes of various animals, even the more "charismatic" ones, have fallen out of fashion, shifting over to smaller welfare groups specifically devoted to their protection. If the elephants' defenders in Africa have been trying to find influential allies here who might help draw attention to the emergency, it's not getting through.

Somewhere along the way, our modern environmental movement took on an impersonal, abstract mindset, more about "habitat" than animals, and so fixated on broader economic agendas as to lose its basic moral vision as guardian of our fellow creatures in the here and now. Protecting animals from vicious people and reckless industries wasn't enough anymore. Economies had to be redirected, paradigms shifted, structural transformations of one kind or another set in motion. It's all carbon, all the time, and for all of the movement's alarmism on other fronts, somehow the end days of the earth's largest land animal has gone practically unremarked. Habitat without animals is just backdrop, quiet of life and morally meaningless. Environmentalism, without animal protection in the foreground, is just an argument about aesthetics and consumer rights. It's cheap nature worship, about us and not really about the world around us. I'm all for going green, but as a rallying cry it lacks something. "We lightened our carbon footprint," as a measure of virtue and moral endeavor, just doesn't have the solid, selfless ring of "We saved the elephants."

Then, too, whenever the travails of any African animal are offered as a serious public concern, there's always someone who thinks we all need reminding that great, too, is the human suffering there, and so why on earth are we so concerned about Africa's animals? The objection, for one thing, attempts to give a high-minded ring to an evasion of human responsibility. This is suffering of human agency, these are man-made miseries on a grievous scale, and that is always sufficient reason to stop the wrongdoers and protect the victims. Listen carefully to such criticisms, moreover -- lately offered under the prissy heading of Human Exceptionalism -- and you'll notice they are rarely arguments saying that we should do more for other humanitarian causes in Africa: more for the afflicted of Darfur, more for the victims of AIDS, more to reform our country's own food aid so that it serves African farmers instead of just American agribusiness, and so on. Mostly, they're just arguments for doing nothing about the elephants, or whatever, as if it is somehow offensive in principle to advocate all of these causes simultaneously. The complaint is a form of moral preening, more "exceptional" than human, and more irrelevant than ever at a time when Africans themselves are seeking our help, and when -- as we have learned in recent years -- their worst enemies and ours are profiting from the massacre of the elephants. You might say, again to borrow from Pope Francis, that helping afflicted humans and animals alike all has to do with "the advance of this world."

* * *

All of this is, in any case, a very big deal, requiring our concentrated consideration, and involving no agenda but our duties to creatures who deserve far better than this fate. After millions of years sharing the earth with us, is this really how it must end for the elephants of Africa, to be frantically rushing in darkness for the few safe zones left, until even those are gone? For all of them to die in sinful slaughter, until the butchers have found the last one, and the last tusk is smuggled off to China?

Those recent reports about the poaching trade, revealing just who is doing the killing and who is being enriched, require our attention whether we are inclined to give it or not. In daring and exemplary coverage, New York Times correspondents Jeffrey Gettleman and Dan Levin have gone beyond the death counts and mournful commentaries to reveal exactly what the elephants and their defenders are up against. The Times series reads in stretches like some National Security Council document prepared for a select few, filled with all the foul characters and shadowy networks that an Asian craze for ivory has loosed upon the continent. A dispatch by Gettlemen from the Republic of Congo last September explains, among much else, the presence of those Arabic-speaking guys who turned Kalashnikovs on the herd in Chad (and then, in a detail I almost wish National Geographic had spared us, prostrated themselves in prayer to Allah):

Some of Africa's most notorious armed groups, including the Lord's Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur's Janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China ....

Al-Shabab is the Somali wing of al-Qaeda, so they figure in all of this too, right along with the army of Joseph Kony, whose enslavement of women and children across central Africa has made him a target of American special forces, and with the Janjaweed militiamen whose campaign of rape and genocide in Darfur earned them the name "devils on horseback."

Hillary Clinton, when she traveled to Africa as secretary of state last summer, was "quite alarmed" by what she heard. "Local leaders are telling their national leaders that they can lose control of large swaths of territory to these criminal gangs." Her successor, Secretary John Kerry, needs no briefing on the crisis. Poachers, he warned in a Senate hearing last year, "operate in remote territories and cross borders with impunity, wreaking havoc on villages and families. Increasingly, criminal gangs and militias are wiping out entire herds and killing anyone who gets in their way."

Then we have evidence of cooperation by officials of the Congolese, South Sudanese, and Ugandan armies -- in the latter case, to the point of actually providing aerial support to poachers. The Ugandan military, which receives many millions of dollars in financial and logistical support from the United States, has apparently supplied some of those helicopters from which the slayers search and destroy. We're helping them, and they're helping the poachers.

Our ambassador to Kenya noted last year, in a cable posted on WikiLeaks, "a marked increase in poaching wherever Chinese labor camps [are] located." There are more than a million Chinese nationals residing in Africa. Some 400 Chinese companies operate in Kenya. "Poaching has risen sharply in areas where the Chinese are building roads," as Kenya's director of Wildlife Services, Julius Kipng'etich, told the Telegraph in 2011. "Is that a coincidence? Ninety percent of the ivory confiscated at Nairobi airport is in Chinese luggage. Some Chinese say we are being racist, but our sniffer dogs are not racist."

Kenya has long banned hunting of any kind, with comparatively healthy herds and annual tourism revenue above $1 billion -- employing more people than all but one industry -- to show for it, until the Chinese companies arrived. As in other range states, these foreign firms are mostly extractive enterprises in the hinterlands, where the elephants are. They clear a path for poachers and provide cover for the smugglers. The way it works is that a Chinese broker shows up in the village, places the order with poachers, and then returns a few days later to pay the killers and collect the tusks.

Here, too, we are sometimes cautioned not to sentimentalize animals, and in the case of poaching to think of the desperation that must lead a man to do such a thing. The real temptation is to sentimentalize the poachers, in a waste of empathy that libels the many poor people in Africa who are trying to protect the elephants. And here's a cure for that, courtesy of National Public Radio reporter John Burnett, who spoke to some poachers this year, including one named Mkanga:

Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals. They will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones. Mkanga, the first poacher, is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap, and smirks. "Sometimes when they have a funeral, it's like a party for me," he says. "You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one."

They aim for the legs, to cripple the elephants first, or in large-scale attacks fire indiscriminately into the herd. Invariably, investigators find evidence that tusks, reaching deep into the skull, have been cut out before some of the creatures were even dead. The poachers often leave poison on the carcasses, to kill the vultures whose swirling above might alert rangers. Sometimes they poison the elephants, with laced pumpkins or watermelons set out before the attack, or with poisoned arrows, or nails on boards laid in the brush that prolong the agony but muffle the noise.

Dan Levin, reporting for the Times in March, picks up the trail in China, with details about trafficking, bribery at every turn, hollow laws and international sanctions, the insufferable self-regard of the carvers and collectors ("Love for ivory is in our blood"), shoppers browsing for just the right bracelet or chopsticks ("As long as the quality of the ivory is good, who cares what happened to the elephant?"), the smuggling rings, the Thai and Vietnamese underworlds, the Chinese mafia, the People's Liberation Army, and on and on.

Enough to say that if a species can be judged by its enemies, then the elephants deserve mercy on that account alone. Just about every bad actor in Africa and Asia seems to have a hand in it. There are more vital causes in this world, even among causes of mercy. But rarely will you find so much depravity converging on such innocence.

After ages in our midst, the most powerful of creatures and among the most gentle, so completely unoffending and yet so endlessly persecuted, here comes the final annihilation. Their extinction will be a joint venture, in essence, of the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory with the Janjaweed and Lord's Resistance Army. The common poacher has fallen in with the militant poacher, in service to unbridled human vanity. Avarice has allied with motives even more malevolent to finish them off, in a vast criminal enterprise that often uses their misery to fund still more atrocities against people, a great chain of greed from Sudan to Shanghai.

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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