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Culture, Reality

Day of the Elephants

by Don Pinnock / 12.08.2013

All over the world today people who care are celebrating and paying homage to the greatest of earth’s animals, the elephant. A century ago there were around four million in Africa and Asia. Today this number is between 420 000 and 658 000 and dropping.

For centuries people have felt a strange kinship with these great grey animals. Elephants are the only creature other than ourselves that celebrate a birth and mourn death. They trumpet in pure joy when a calf is born and fondle the bones of their dead, seemingly deep in thought.

In India they are revered as god Ganesh. In African fables the elephant is always the wise chief who impartially settles disputes among forest creatures. They’re featured on the national flags of Siam, Laos and the Ivory Coast.

In Zulu tradition the Indhlovu (elephant) clan are the line of paramount chiefs. And when the Ashanti of Ghana find a dead elephant in the forest, they give it a chief’s burial.

In the beginning it may have been this respect for elephants that made an ivory object desirable and precious. But in the modern world of commerce and high-calibre weapons, desire and greed has trumped respect and four elephants an hour are now falling to poacher guns. There is a general misconception – supported by those who wish to profit from ivory sales – that there are too many elephants in Africa and that, because of this, they are destroying their environment. Intensive research by organisations such as Elephants Without Borders has found that elephant numbers are self-stabilising and do not require culling to protect their habitat.

Proponents often claim culling is necessary to preserve biodivesity reasons: elephants push over trees. But this is part of the natural relationship between forest and grassland and without elephants trees would overwhelm the food supply of grazers. In the Kruger park, culling had no positive effect on the vegetation and neither has the cessation of culls. The consensus amongst scientists is that culling can only be justified on aesthetic grounds and that this is not an adequate reason.

Legal trading in ivory, supported by a strong market lobby, has proved devastating for elephants. In 1989, after two decades in which the world’s elephant population was halved, the United States imposed a unilateral ban on the importation of ivory followed by the International Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) banning the trade in elephant ivory. Eight years later, after pressure from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, it down-listed elephant protection and allowed a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles from these countries. In 2008 it approved another stockpile sale.

A report, Making a Killing by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and another, Blood Ivory by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has highlighted the tragedy of these decisions to legalise trade. Since the sales, poaching has escalated to a point where the future of the creatures is in doubt (the numbers of secretive Central African forest elephants are down by 62 percent from 2002 levels).

According to the reports, the stockpile sales created confusion among consumers in China, who believed the ivory trade was legal, effectively breaking the integrity of the ban.

The influx of legal ivory into the market in China simply spurred demand, pushed up prices and created a grey market in which legal ivory provides outlets and opportunities for illegal ivory to be sold. For this reason poaching has rocketed.

The flow of poached ivory is recently finding new routes. As Beijing increases its investments in Africa, Chinese nationals (workers, businessmen and visitors) are reaching every corner of the continent – and a rising number of them are becoming involved in illicit ivory trading.

As poacher guns do their deadly work, the future of elephants is uncertain. In an attempt to raise awareness of their plight, around the world today, people are paying homage to elephants with a plea: Ivory Belongs to Elephants- don’t buy it. The alternative is unthinkable: extinction.

12 August is World Elephant Day. Learn more at Conservation Action.

*Image © Don Pinnock

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