The Elephant’s Armageddon: Part I

elephants sunset

By guest writer— Ron Thomson

This an eleventh-hour appeal for common sense to prevail in the ongoing and controversial international debate surrounding what management strategy is deemed best for the African elephant. Just as the Christian bible or the Islamic Qur’an cannot be written on the back of a postage stamp, however, so the details of elephant conservation cannot be expounded in a single short article. This, therefore, is the first of a series of blogs that will reveal the facts surrounding this – for Africa – vitally important topic. I promise you only one thing – I will tell you the truth. I intend to tell you “what is” without fear or favour.

What credentials do I have to qualify me to write such an important series? That is an important question so let’s get its answer out of the way at the outset.

I am a 78 year old white African who has spent his entire life in the service of Africa’s wildlife. I began my career, age 20, in 1959 when I attested into the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. I served in that department for 24 years, rising through the ranks to become the Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of Hwange National Park – the country’s premier tourism destination and big game sanctuary. I qualified as an ecologist; became a member of the Institute of Biology (London); and was registered as a Chartered Biologist for the European Union for 20 years.

Throughout my career I was deeply involved with the hands-on management of all Africa’s big game animals and I worked closely with some of the continent’s greatest and most accomplished full-time wildlife scientists. I pioneered and perfected the capture of black rhinos in the Zambezi Valley (1964 – 1970) – hunting on foot; approaching every rhino that I darted, alone, with only a capture gun in my hands; and I successfully translocated 140 of these pugnacious beasts, releasing them into the relative safety of the country’s national parks. For those of you who know about such things, you may be interested to know that my average darting range, in the heavy Zambezi valley thickets, was between 6 and 13 yards.

Throughout my service, I hunted elephants extensively – crop-raiders; man-killers; veterinary fence breakers; agricultural installation nuisances; to stop the advance of the tsetse fly into the country’s commercial farming areas; and to variously help feed the Batonka people after they had been forcibly evacuated from their ancestral homes on the banks of the Zambezi river following the creation of Lake Kariba. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed my dangerous big game hunting adventures but I never hunted for trophies. I hunted elephant because it was my job, as a government game ranger, to do so.

I was the officer-in-charge – and chief hunter – of the elephant population reduction programme in the Gonarezhou National Park (1971 & 1972) when, for urgent management reasons, we reduced the numbers of elephants in that park from 5000 to 2500; during which operation I perfected new, humane and more efficient elephant culling techniques.

I left Zimbabwe in 1983 under duress, when Mr Mugabe replaced all the colonial civil servants with veterans of his recent War-of-Liberation. I was prepared to stay and help the new Zimbabwe develop; but I was not wanted!

I emigrated to South Africa in 1983 where I served as Chief Nature Conservation Officer for Ciskei (one year); and then Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Management Board of Bophuthatswana (three years). And I operated as a professional hunter for three years. Soon, thereafter, I began writing books (x 14 now) about Africa’s wildlife management issues – and articles in outdoor magazines about such controversial issues as the need to cull, or not to cull, elephants. For the last 28 years I have earned a living as an investigative wildlife journalist.

I explain all these things to emphasize my point that I have vast hands-on experience in the management of Africa’s elephants – and other big game animals; that I have biological/ecological training and experience; and that I am amply qualified to write this blog and the ones that follow. And I have been actively engaged in all these matters for the last 58 years.

I love Africa’s wildlife, particularly its elephants and black rhinos, and I am distraught in the knowledge that the fate of all these wonderful animals now rests, de facto, in the hands of uninformed and incompetent NGOs, and interfering governments in the First World – who see only what they want to see of the complex wildlife management and humanitarian issues involved. And they, more often than not, miss the point by a mile; the NGOs fabricate untruths in their propaganda; and thereby, they make hundreds of millions of US dollars out of their gullible publics.  These people – from Prince William in Buckingham Palace to the supporters of the planet’s most pernicious animal rightist NGOs – are now making demands on Africa (through organisations like the US Fish & Wildlife Service, CITES and the European Parliament ) to apply solutions to Africa’s elephant poaching problems that are only going to make matters worse.

The elephants of Africa need common sense to prevail. They will not survive without it. My next several blogs will reveal to you a great many realities about Africa and its elephants – information that you have never heard nor believed possible. Nobody can make a rational decision about anything unless and until they are in possession of all the facts about it. Considering the needs of Africa’s elephants and their management is no exception. I intend to provide you, therefore, with all the pertinent facts in the next several blogs. So look forward to the next blog that will be coming soon.

Blood Ivory and More Dead Elephants

As written for National Geographic: A Voice For Elephants


Photograph by Bruce Dale/National Geographic Creative

By Andrew Wyatt and Doug Bandow

Nothing embodies the power and majesty of wild Africa like the iconic elephant. Tragically, across the continent you can see the devastating impact poaching has had on this keystone species. “Blood ivory” poachers ply their trade from the killing fields of the African savanna to the major markets in Asia. Decades of poor policy have resulted in dead elephants littering the African landscape.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is making policy even worse. It is calling for more “ivory crush,” the destruction of existing ivory stores, and a ban on the legal trade of ivory within the United States. These proposals reflect a desperate misunderstanding of the illegal market and will only accelerate the slaughter of African elephants.

For instance, in early April Belgium joined the U.S., China, and host of other nations in the growing Ivory crush movement—supposedly to “send a warning” to ivory poachers. Alas, decreasing the world’s stockpile of ivory actually drives prices for blood ivory upward, thereby increasing profits for sophisticated poaching syndicates.

In early February, the Obama administration introduced the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Two weeks later, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it would effectively ban all domestic ivory sales, even of antique objects. This step would punish the law-abiding while encouraging them to look for illegal outlets for their collections and inventories.

Unfortunately, the administration is playing the politics of deception, or at least deliberate misinformation. There is no doubt that poaching poses a threat to thousands of African elephants. But exaggerating claims for political advantage interferes with developing an effective conservation strategy.

FWS Director Dan Ashe and others have been circulating misleading information on elephant deaths, poaching, and the illegal ivory trade to advance an ideological agenda rather than to protect elephants. Among the more serious errors: “More than 35,000 elephants were killed in 2013 for the illegal ivory trade.” According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) program of Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), 25,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa in 2011 and 22,000 were killed in 2012. While still unacceptably high, it is far less than the 35,000 (with some claims hitting 50,000) that has become the rallying cry for those campaigning to ban even old, legal ivory sales.

Moreover, not all of these elephants were killed by poachers. Many were killed by farmers and villagers, for whom elephants are dangerous pests. The World Wildlife Fund estimates elephants killed for their tusks at approximately 20,000 per year. The figures for 2013 have not yet been released, but probably are of the same magnitude as before. In fact, John Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, recently stated that he saw “encouraging signs” that poaching may be stabilizing.

“The United States is the second-largest market for ivory in the world.” This statement, although true, is misleading. According to a study of domestic ivory trade by two wildlife specialists entitled The USA’s Ivory Markets—How Much a Threat to Elephants?: “The USA has the second-largest ivory market in the world, after China-Hong Kong. The illegal proportion of it, however, is much smaller than any country in Asia and most countries in Africa. The USA ivory market poses a minimal threat to elephants.” FWS spokeswoman Sandra Cleva said: “The vast majority of U.S. seizures involve small non-commercial quantities, a fact that refutes the claim that large-scale illegal ivory trade exists in the United States.” According to the monitoring network TRAFFIC, Thailand is actually the second-largest market for illegal ivory in the world.

The fact that supposedly responsible government officials knowingly mislead the public demonstrates how the ivory debate has become politicized, with an emphasis on symbolism rather than solutions. Fighting poaching and stemming the flow of “blood ivory” is difficult. It is far easier to feign empathy by punishing the innocent owners of ivory objects, even if decades or centuries old.

The Ivory crush is merely foolish, inflating illegal ivory prices and denying revenues to the developing states that contain most elephants. Worse is the plan to render legally valueless virtually every piece of ivory in America, even though accumulated over many years in compliance with the law.

The administration already has barred the import of ivory, even if centuries old with peerless provenance, punishing American collectors and dealers. Craftsmen repairing or working with old and legal raw ivory could lose their livelihoods. Owners of vintage musical instruments and guns are prohibited from leaving and returning to the U.S. with them.

Any item containing a tiny fleck of ivory in it could trigger federal legal action. The administration said it will not target “knick-knacks,” but people with hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars worth of ivories will find no legal buyers, since the administration plans to require documentation that does not exist. And the easiest way for FWS employees to boost their enforcement statistics would be to target confused collectors and dealers rather than accomplished criminals who operate in the shadows.

Obvious alternatives exist. Any plan should target poachers and their U.S. contacts. FWS should enlist legitimate collectors and dealers in helping to uncover the illegal trade, rather than treat the law-abiding as enemies. FWS could issue a “passport” for musicians and gun owners to carry their possessions back and forth. If the agency—with the consent of Congress, rather than in a secretive rule-making process—is determined to more clearly delineate old legal ivory, it could phase in a registration system for legal ivory objects.

Those who own and work in ivory are as appalled as everyone else about the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. But the policy adopted should actually achieve its end, rather than encourage the trade in “blood ivory.” Moreover, the government should not punish law abiding, tax paying citizens who followed long-standing law in accumulating ivory. Federal policy should be both effective and fair.

Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs consultant who works exclusively in the wildlife sector and is a founder of USARK U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.

As written for National Geographic: A Voice For Elephants