The Elephant’s Armageddon: Part III


By guest writer Ron Thomson

THE GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS (GEC) (Part One): Its faults and its foibles
The elephant population figures produced by Africa’s Great Elephant Census (2016) were just a list of numbers. The report did not record anything about the ecological management status of the elephant populations that were counted. For example, there was no information at all about the elephant carrying capacities of the habitats in which each population lived. So we have no idea which populations were SAFE, UNSAFE and/or EXCESSIVE.

This is a pity because a lot of people expended a lot of energy to produce the figures. But – whichever way you look at them – they are still just a bunch of numbers. And I lament the fact that “numbers” are seemingly all that matters in the present day and age! Certainly, whenever elephant numbers are up from previous counts – everybody rejoices. And they produce long faces when the numbers are “down”; and “poaching”- without any substantiation – is always blamed for any and all declines.

The census results indicate there were 352 271 elephants, ranging over 18 countries across Africa, in 2016. Nineteen countries were omitted from the census.  But, the scientists say that, statistically, the numbers counted represent 93 percent of Africa’s savannah elephants.  If that is so, then the total number of elephants in Africa now stands at 380 000. (An extra 28 000?)

The authors concluded that Africa’s savannah elephants had declined by 30 percent (equal to 144 000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014.  If these figures are true, this reflects an average annual net loss during that period of 20 571 per year; 56 per day; 2,3 per hour; or one every 26 minutes. The declines, the report concluded – without any substantiation – were “primarily due to poaching”. These facts paint a dismal picture at the start of the 21st Century, but let’s have a look at the whole story before we go ballistic.

“Poaching” was not defined in the report, and “the poachers” were not identified. To make any sense of what the report claimed, therefore, requires that we examine the history of Africa’s commercial elephant poaching pandemic.

During the 1970s and 1980s “the political elite” in Kenya were said to have been responsible for the reduction of elephant numbers in that country, from an estimated 275 000 (1970) to 20 000 (1989); the killing of ten thousand black rhinos; and the killing of thousands of several other species, such as zebra and colobus monkeys, for their skins.  Two village hunters, on one occasion, were arrested for having 26 000 colobus monkey skins in their possession. The day after their arrest they were released from prison when “official papers” (from the highest office in the land) were produced to indicate the hunters were in legal possession of the skins.

All the contraband was exported from Kenya’s east coast seaports directly to illegal markets in the Far East without any kind of CITES documentation; but with tacit presidential approval.

A similar tale emerges from Tanzania.  Between 1976 and 1986 the elephants of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve were reduced from 110 000 to 55 000 (ref. Dr Rolf Baldus; confirmed 2017). And over a much longer period of time (1977 – 1993) Baldus claims that Tanzania’s elephant “poachers” reduced the overall elephant numbers, throughout Tanzania, from 365 000 to 53 000.   Baldus further reported:

The poaching had its roots in political and business circles in Tanzania, the villages bordering the SGR (Selous Game Reserve) and partly within the conservation system itself (i.e. government game rangers).

He goes on to say:

Village poachers and game scouts did the shooting, but ‘big people’ – politicians, civil servants, businessmen and even hunting operators – masterminded the slaughter.

In Zimbabwe and Zambia in the 1990s – similarly – the political elites of those countries were also involved in the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and their horns.

I make mention of all these incidents to indicate a seemingly “politically acceptable” trend of massive elephant and rhino poaching events in East Africa, and south-central Africa, that were all orchestrated by the political elites and their cronies, during the latter three decades of the 20th Century.

All these events are “elephants in the room” that nobody, who values his life, talks about in Africa. Whistleblowers in Africa have a very short life expectancy! Yet everybody knows about these terrible events. And a great deal of this information, at the time, was reported in local and overseas newspapers. The involvement of the Kenyan president and his family – especially the First Lady Ngina Kenyatta – in the country’s poaching pandemic (1970s and 1980s) – was often, apparently, mentioned in the Kenyan parliament; and one individual who threatened to “expose it all” was murdered. And the British government knew all about what was happening.

Then, in the new millennium, the poaching started up all over again. Between 2008 and 2014 – 44 000 elephants were poached inside the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania under circumstances that were entirely orchestrated by (as before) members of that country’s political, social and business elite; including the army and police. There was no serious attempt by the government to stop the poaching; and a lot of the poachers – the people who pulled the triggers – were reported (by Tanzanian residents “in the know”) to have been given immunity from prosecution.

As happened in Kenya, all the contraband was exported from Tanzania’s seaports directly to illegal markets in the Far East without any kind of CITES documentation; but also, it would appear, with tacit presidential approval.

At about the same time as the Selous slaughter, “tens of thousands” of elephants were reportedly also removed from northern Mozambique under the auspices of this same government-elite class of people in that country.

These latter two sets of poached elephants – the 44 000 (in the Selous) and “several tens of thousands” in the Niassa Province of Mozambique, are included in the 144 000 elephants that were recorded as having been killed “by poachers” (between 2007 and 2014) in the Great Elephant Census (GEC) Report.

The term “poacher” is not defined in the GEC, so it is left to the reader’s imagination to believe just what he wants to believe. The massive weight of continuous animal rights propaganda over the years, however, has seemingly convinced the whole world that elephant poaching in Africa is all controlled and organised by a mysterious “Chinese Mafia”; and the killing is carried out by “greedy” village poachers. So, I must suppose that that is what most people believe – because it is a statement that has been repeated many, many times since CITES 1989, and rarely refuted.

It is a huge, mischievous and criminal distortion of the truth to attribute the 144 000 “poached” elephants that were recorded in the GEC report, to Africa’s “greedy” village hunters; to the so-called Far Eastern poaching “mafia”; and/or to any other criminal elements in general African society – unless you include within this group those members of the political elite who orchestrated the really BIG poaching events in Africa’s recent history. So, the inferences made in the GEC report – that the poaching must come to a stop if Africa’s elephants have any chance of being saved – is VERY and, in my opinion purposefully, misleading. I believe that if you want to point fingers at the culprits in Africa, several of the continent’s political elites should be named, shamed and held accountable. They are the ones who are most responsible for the great losses of elephants and rhinos that Africa has suffered during the last fifty years. The big question that comes out of the GEC report is: WHO do we have to pressure to stop the poaching?

THE whole world needs to be told who we should be fighting, if it is truly everybody’s intention to stop commercial elephant poaching in Africa! In my book, Africa’s political elite are more to blame for the decline in elephant and rhino numbers in Africa, than any other single group of people. And the biggest link to the demise of Africa’s elephants is bad governance.

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Andrew Wyatt, of Vitello Consulting, is a government affairs and policy consultant dedicated exclusively to the wildlife sector.

WyattP1“The debate regarding trade in antique ivory in the U.S. is highly charged and contentious. I specialize in articulating clear policy ideas and getting them in front of key decision makers. Please follow ‘The Last Word on Wildlife’ for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of creating a comprehensive business/government affairs strategy, or a more targeted issue campaign, please call or email me.” — Andrew Wyatt

©Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word on Wildlife, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word on Wildlife with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Material posted from guest writers is the sole intellectual property of the author. Please seek permission directly from the author prior to reproducing in whole or in part.

Terrorism or Trophies: #CeciltheLion

Cecil The Lion

Last Summer there was worldwide outrage when a dentist from Minnesota killed an iconic old lion that was loved by tourists in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. When news of the lions death hit social media, the story spread like wildfire. The discovery that this lion had a name, and that his name was Cecil, would create a symbol for a movement. #CeciltheLion

On Monday, November 2, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bi-partisan H.R. 2494, the Global Anti-Poaching Act. Some animal activists and journalists were quick to affix the #CeciltheLion moniker to this significant anti-poaching measure claiming it as their own.

Misleading News Headlines This Week:
House passes anti-poaching bill inspired by Cecil the lionThe Hill
Cecil The Lion Fallout: US House Passes Anti-Poaching BillInternational Business Times
Importing lion trophies to the US could be outlawed as Cecil backlash continues ~ The Guardian

Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Sponsored by Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Global Anti-Poaching Act takes aim at wildlife trafficking by international crime syndicates and terrorist organizations. Introduced May 21st of this year, the bill predates the #CeciltheLion phenomenon, and is in reality a response to the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking mandated by the Obama Administration in February 2014.

By contrast, H.R. 3526 and S. 1918the CECIL Act, are companion bills in the House and Senate that would prohibit trophy hunters from importing parts of any species, proposed or listed, as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. S. 1918 was introduced to the Senate in July, and H.R. 3526 to the House in September. They were clearly the result of the outcry over Cecils death.

Sloppy journalism has conflated the Global Anti-Poaching Act and the CECIL Act, and has caused most of the confusion over which bill does what, and for whom. That confusion has been exponentially magnified by social media, and is now viral on the internet. Meanwhile the CECIL Act has not emerged from committee in either chamber, and may never see the light of day.

Terrorism or Trophies: What’s the Difference?
The Global Anti-Poaching Act ~ Fights poachers and wildlife traffickers. No connection to the #CeciltheLion movement. Passed the House on Monday and is headed for the Senate.
The CECIL Act ~ Would stop the import of some hunting trophies into the United States. Closely associated with the #CeciltheLion movement. Stalled in committee.

The Global Anti-Poaching Act is a clear net positive for wildlife conservation world wide. Here are the main provisions in a nutshell:
1) It will expand wildlife networks and designate major wildlife trafficking countries.
2) It will withhold economic assistance to nations that are identified as weak on enforcement.
3) Seeks to professionalize wildlife rangers with training.
4) Allows the US to provide security assistance to other nations, while empowering domestic law enforcement to treat wildlife crime under federal racketeering (RICO) statutes.
5) Explicitly protects “lawful” hunting activities.

If H.R. 2494 passes the Senate, and is signed into law, the U.S. would step to the forefront of the global fight against wildlife trafficking. Designating who the bad players are (i.e. nations that are lenient on traffickers) gives the U.S. leverage to withhold future financial aid to offending countries. Further, the act gives domestic law enforcement carte blanche to treat wildlife traffickers as organized crime, much like the mafia or drug cartels. Holding these criminals accountable to federal racketeering law, combined with the threat of withholding much needed financial assistance to countries that tolerate trafficking, give the measure a powerful 1-2 punch in combatting poaching.

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


The Wrong Way to Protect Elephants

Reblogged from The New York Times.

Making legal trade illegal and turning good citizens into criminals will make it easier for FWS to make cases against Americans here at home, but it fails to address the hard work of catching poachers and real criminals that are determined to kill every living elephant. ~Andrew Wyatt

The New York Times | The Opinion Pages |OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS

27harris-master495THE year was 1862. Abraham Lincoln was in the White House. “Taps” was first sounded as a lights-out bugle call. And Steinway & Sons was building its first upright pianos in New York.

The space-saving design would help change the cultural face of America. After the Civil War, many middle-class families installed them in their parlors. The ability to play the piano was thought to be nearly as important to the marriage potential of single ladies as their skill in cooking and sewing, signaling a young woman’s gentility and culture.

The keys on those pianos were all fashioned from the ivory of African elephants. And that is why one of these uprights, the oldest one known to survive, in fact, is stuck in Japan.

The director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued an order prohibiting the commercial importation of all African elephant ivory into the United States. (Commercial imports had been allowed in some instances, including for certain antiques.)

The Obama administration is also planning to implement additional rules that will prohibit, with narrow exceptions, both the export of African elephant ivory and its unfettered trade within the United States.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that these new rules will help stop the slaughter of elephants. But we believe that unless demand for ivory in Asia is reduced — through aggressive education programs there, tougher enforcement against the illegal ivory trade and the creation of a legal raw ivory market — these new American regulations will merely cause the price to balloon and the black market to flourish, pushing up the profit potential of continued poaching.

In short, these new rules proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service may well end up doing more harm than good to the African elephant.

Read more at The New York Times...


Terrorists, Tusks and the Ivory Crush

photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Today ivory sells on the black market for about $1500US per pound. Al-Shabab, a Somali splinter cell of al Qaida, raises $600,000 per month from poaching activities. Local African warlords and international crime syndicates fund their own violent and illegal activities through ivory poaching. Any reduction in the supply of legal ivory to growing middle class markets in China will skyrocket prices for illegal supplies, with profit margins for terrorist groups, warlords and criminals escalating correspondingly.

Recently the Obama administration announced that US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) would promulgate a rule that would ban ivory sales in the United States. Government agencies around the world have postured with high profile ivory crushes and burns from China to the United States and Kenya. Even Prince William wants to crush the Royal ivory collection in the UK. This week the Administrations’ Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking will meet to discuss their strategy to enact  a rule ending legal trade in the US. But will destroying stockpiles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade really stop ivory poaching in Africa? There is no evidence to support that belief.

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” ~Thomas Sowell

While seemingly noble, these measures are largely symbolic and are likely to drive the price of ivory up by creating scarcity. Markets are driven by supply and demand. When the supply is reduced and the demand continues or increases, prices move up. Even the perception of scarcity puts upward pressure on markets. This is all Economics 101, and it applies equally to legal and illegal markets.

The face of ivory poaching in Africa

The face of ivory poaching in Africa

Propaganda in support of the ivory crush theory suggests that eliminating the world’s stock piles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade works to discourage black-market trade; that somehow legal trade provides cover for illegal trade. The opposite effect is far more likely. Without a significant decrease in the demand for ivory, scarcity, even perceived scarcity, will likely drive the price for illicit ivory to all time highs. Black-market trade will become more lucrative than ever. Criminals will be emboldened by the world’s inability to protect elephants in Africa, nor implement a workable strategy to reduce demand in ivory markets.

Instead of crushing valuable stockpiles of ivory in a grand symbolic gesture, sell the ivory in legal markets and use the money for elephant conservation. This is not about writing symbolic checks that are the fodder of photo ops and behind the scenes corruption– but about putting beans and bullets directly on the ground to be used by the rangers who need them. We should use money from legal ivory sales  for the recruitment and training of additional personnel, outfit them with the equipment they need, and deploy them to fight sophisticated poaching rings. Crushing ivory out of existence only increases it’s value on the black market.

Ivory poaching is funding international terrorism. Making it more difficult and more dangerous to kill elephants, while educating  the Chinese to the realities of ivory trade, will mitigate the flow of money from ivory to terrorist activities.

Al-Shabab makes $600,000 per month on poaching and employs child soldiers.

Al-Shabab makes $600,000 per month on poaching and employs child soldiers

Money from legal ivory sales could fund educational programs targeting the Chinese middle class.

Making legal trade illegal and turning good citizens into criminals will make it easier for FWS to make cases against Americans here at home, but it fails to address the hard work of catching poachers and real criminals that are determined to kill every living elephant.

We should utilize the groups that have the most at stake in elephant conservation. Hunting groups, gun and equipment manufacturers, and NGO’s. They all need to step up to the plate and play a larger role in preservation of the species they value. Protecting elephants as a resource that will be available for future generations should be a common goal of all of these interest groups. The focus needs to be on leveraging relationships on the ground in Africa, and empowering small specialized projects that get equipment, supplies, manpower and training where they are needed most. We should be using the legal sale of confiscated ivory to fund putting boots on the ground to undercut poaching.

Additionally, a larger effort needs to go into educating middle class ivory consumers in China. Again, NGO’s funded in part by legal sales of ivory could create a model for education– essentially an “issue campaign” to change the hearts and minds that currently have such an appetite for ivory and a steadfast superstition that tusks grow like human fingernails.

If we insist on going down the primrose path of symbolic conservation gestures that actually aggravate the situation,  while wasting what could be irreplaceable conservation dollars from ivory stockpiles, we fail. We will never address the  fundamentals of supply and demand. Our current course will make it so lucrative and easy for criminals and terrorists to continue their activities that elephant populations could be pushed to the brink.

Funding for elephant conservation is limited. Criminalizing legal trade of ivory at home is foolish, ineffective and distracts from actual conservation. We are running out of time for the usual tortured process of political posturing and the stroking of egos. We need to get resources on the ground and limit markets in short order. Elephants died for the ivory being crushed. Should their deaths be for naught? Use the money from legal sales of ivory to protect the future of elephants for generations to come. Stop the ivory crush.


WyattP2The ivory crush and other wildlife issues are highly charged and contentious. I specialize in working with clients to employ campaign style tactics to change hearts and minds on vital issues in the wildlife sector. Please follow The Last Word for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of running a targeted issue campaign, and/or a comprehensive government affairs strategy, please call or email me. ~ Andrew Wyatt


Reblogged from Conservation Magazine.

“Are rhinos a keystone species on the African savannah? A new study from the Journal of Ecology forecasts dire consequences for ecosystems if the rhino disappears from the African landscape.” ~ Andrew Wyatt

February 19, 2014 / Conservation This Week

We don’t usually think of herbivores as keystone species. That’s a moniker we usually apply to apex predators, who can keep entire ecosystems in check and aren’t themselves subject to predation. But given their size, mature “megaherbivores” like white rhinos aren’t usually subject to predation either. If they can survive to adulthood, the main pressure on the size of their population, like for apex predators, is simply the availability of food. That allows them to exert disproportionate control over their environments, just as lions or wolves. According to new research published in the Journal of Ecology, Africa’s white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) could be thought of as apex consumers.

The removal of apex predators from an ecosystem can be catastrophic. The oft-used examples are the Yellowstone wolves. When they were culled, the deer population exploded, which in turn meant that plant populations declined. The bears, who rely on many of the same berries on which the deer fed, also suffered from lack of food. When the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, the entire community shifted back into balance.

Researchers are increasingly realizing that the removal of megaherbivores from their ecosystems can have similarly devastating impacts. In a 2009 paper in the journal Science, paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill argued that the extinction of North American Pleistocene megaherbivores—mammoths, mastodons, horses, sloths, camels—drove similar large-scale ecosystem changes. The diversity and populations of plant communities were altered, which led to subsequent extinctions of other species.

Most research on the effects of plant eaters on the African savannah has focused on the other massive herbivore, elephants. So researchers Joris P. G. M. Cromsigt and Mariska te Beest turned to white rhinos. Rhinos aren’t just elephants with different ivory ornamentation, they also put pressure on different plant communities. Elephants are primarily browsers, eating from trees, while rhinos are grazers. Think of them like adorable lawn mowers with pointy spikes at the ends of their noses.

Wild rhinos may be driven to extinction within the next couple decades if current poaching rates continue. What will that mean for the African savannah?

Rhinos were driven out of South Africa’s Kruger National Park by 1896 due to hunting, and were reintroduced beginning in the 1960s. The reintroduction was a massive success: by 2010, there were some 10,000 to 11,000 individuals within the park. But they aren’t equally distributed. This presented Cromsigt and te Beest with a natural experiment. They compared parts of the park in which rhinos have grazed for several decades to other areas which have been only recently recolonized. To measure the ways in which rhinos exert pressure on the environment, they measured the quantity of short grass lawns within high- and low-density rhino areas and the surface area covered by those lawns.

Both measurements revealed more short grasses in high-density rhino areas compared with spaces that have only recently seen rhino activity. In the African grassland, short grass cover is a useful metric for botanical heterogeneity. The more short grass lawns, the more diverse the landscape.

At first this might seem counterintuitive; if rhinos are intensely grazing the land, shouldn’t plant communities suffer? The key is to think of them less as lawnmowers and more as…selective lawnmowers. “In many grassland and savannah systems,” Gill explained to me, “grazers increase biodiversity, by selectively eating certain kinds of plants over others.” In her own research she’s found that North American bison eat grasses and ignore forbs. (Sunflowers and milkweed are both types of prairie forbs.) By trimming the grasses, the bison allow the forbs, which normally can’t compete for light and water, a fighting chance to survive. “There is a lot of research that suggests that [grazers are] really important for maintaining diversity, as well as the coexistence of trees and grasses, by creating a shifting patch mosaic on the landscape,” she says.

Take away the rhinos from the landscape and, according to this research, the landscape will suffer. Cromsigt and te Beest say that their study highlights some of the indirect, yet important, effects of the rhinopoaching crisis. “Not only is rhino poaching threatening the species conservation status,” they write, “but also the potentially key role of this apex consumer for savanna ecosystem dynamics and functioning.” – Jason G. Goldman | 19 February 2014

Source: Cromsigt J.P.G.M., te Beest M. & Bellingham P. (2014). Restoration of a megaherbivore: landscape-level impacts of white rhinoceros in Kruger National Park, South Africa, Journal of Ecology. DOI: 

Photo: White rhino via Flickr/Mike Showbiz.

Lions and Rhinos and Gazelles… Oh My!

Can Private Conservation Contribute to Species Survival?

photo: Wikipedia- Nick Brandt

photo: Wikipedia- Nick Brandt

With conservation groups attending an illegal wildlife trafficking symposium in London this week, and the US announcing  its National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking here at home, animal rights activists are using the opportunity to blur the lines between legal and illegal wildlife trade. Nevertheless, whether it is creating economic value for species preservation within local African communities, incenting captive breeding as a conservation safety net, or raising money for anti-poaching efforts, private commercial activity is an economic engine driving significant contributions toward the conservation of some of Africa’s most charismatic megafauna. Poachers for rhino horns, ivory and asian medicine markets are the true enemies, not legal hunting activities and captive breeding programs.

ranger brent stirton nat geo

Ranger patroling for poachers.
photo: Brent Stirton, National Geographic

Africa is proving to be a more and more difficult arena in which to affect real conservation.  No longer is the enemy simply corruption for personal enrichment. Recently, the Washington Post reported on the links between the astronomical amounts of money generated in the black market for rhino horn and elephant ivory, to funding for  al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. With Vietnamese demand for rhino horn fetching $50,000- 100,000 per kilo, the level of violence perpetrated on black rhinos and the rangers responsible for protecting this “Critically Endangered” species, is almost unfathomable.

A similarly depraved dynamic drives the relentless slaughter of African elephants for their ivory. These huge ill-begotten profits are coveted by terrorists and sophisticated crime syndicates to fund operations. Numbers of elephants and rhinos poached have spiked exponentially over the last decade. Needless to say, the authorities in African nations are outgunned, ill-equipped and underfunded. In an effort to help fund efforts to protect rhinos the Dallas Safari Club raised $350,000 to fight poaching in Namibia with a conservation fundraising auction last month. Poaching, not controlled hunting, threatens the future of elephants and rhinos in Africa.

On another front, according to Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm, there are approximately 35,000 free ranging lions left on the African continent today. Although at a recent African lion workshop hosted by US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), three experts agreed that the lion is not currently in danger of extinction, US based animal rights organizations petitioned FWS to list lions as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), citing hunting as a significant factor in lion decline. However, most conservation experts agree, habitat loss and human-lion conflict, not hunting, are the primary causes of the lions’ decline in Africa. To the contrary, hunting advocates have been the biggest barrier between the African lion and decimation by creating economic incentives for local communities to protect lions as a valuable and sustainable resource.

Addax Antelope

Addax Antelope

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Texas game ranchers are raising endangered African hoof stock in large numbers. A few years ago the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a lawsuit beginning a prolonged legal battle to block permitting by FWS of ranchers who have brought three endangered antelope species (the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, Dama Gazelle and Addax) back from the brink of extiction. The argument that these antelope are better off extinct than thriving on Texas game ranches was undercutting the economic value of the endangered gazelles and threatened to destroy all the good work these dedicated conservationists had done. Fortunately, legislation known as the “Three Amigos” bill, reinstated an exemption for captive bred specimens protected under the ESA, again allowing for  the propagation and trade of these three species, was passed on January 21, 2014– clearing the way for commercial interests to protect these magnificent animals from extinction.

The thrust of anti-hunting rhetoric has been to equate hunting to poaching and characterizing any economic activity involving animals as inherently immoral or unethical. These groups demonize hunting and hunters, and try to mold public opinion to be empathic to anti-hunting ideology by emphasizing the death of individual animals in dramatic fashion — hoping to trigger protective feelings from an animal loving public that relates to their own pets. They refuse to acknowledge the economic contributions made by commercial interests in wildlife and seek to characterize the economic value of animals to be exploitative and immoral.

“In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when conserved by the sportsman. The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wildlife, are wholly ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping wild creatures from total extermination.” ~ Teddy Roosevelt

The truth is, if they have no economic value, these animals are far more difficult to conserve. This fact is reinforced every day on the ground in Africa when a villager sees more value in protecting his livestock by poisoning a lion than he does in letting the lion live. Economic incentives are a vital component of 21st century wildlife conservation. Just as the illegal value of wildlife trafficking is driving many animals towards extinction, continuing to develop a legal economic value and trade for these same animals may be their only salvation. Private commercial conservation efforts are an intrinsic part any sincere effort at species preservation.