Elephants, rhinos and donkeys

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I wrote the other day about celebrity and conservation; about dogoodery, the liberal conscience, and the ignorance that sometimes informs it.  It took me back to a chapter that Paul Vare and I wrote in our 2018 book: The World We'll Leave Behind.  Here it is in a pre-publication form.

In early 2016, a census of African elephant populations was carried out for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.[i]   The census contributed to IUCN’s African Elephant Status Report, which was launched at the 2016 CITES meeting in Johannesburg (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).[ii]  The BBC’s headline on this report was: “Grim outlook for elephants” and its lead news item was that the elephant population had declined by about 111,000 over the past 10 years, with around 30 to 40,000 now being killed every year by poachers working for organised crime networks.

The picture from the census was, indeed, grim.  For example, elephant populations have declined by 22% in Angola since 2005 and by 53% since 2011 in Mozambique. The census also recorded carcass ratios where a ratio of 10% means one dead elephant was seen for every 10 live ones.  These ranged from 0.5% in Uganda to 85% in Zambia, with typical figures being around 20 to 30%.  High ratios are taken to be evidence of poaching, and IUCN’s conclusion was that, overall, Africa’s elephant population was experiencing its worst decline in 25 years, mainly due to poaching, although habitat loss remains a significant factor as well.

Overall, it’s reckoned that there are still about 415,000 elephants in Africa, although this figure could be an under-estimate owing to the difficulty of counting them.  Of these, Southern Africa has the largest number – about 293,000 (70%).  Eastern Africa has around 86,000 (20%) and Central Africa about 24,000 (6%).  West Africa only has approximately 11,000 (under 3%).  IUCN says that Eastern Africa is the region most heavily affected by poaching, with a more than 60% decline in Tanzania since 2010.  Despite this, numbers have been stable or increasing since 2006 in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda.

Poaching has not yet had the same impact in Southern Africa.  Although population declines have been observed in Mozambique, major populations in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are stable or increasing, and there is evidence of elephant range expansion in Botswana.  The elephants in Central Africa, have been massively affected by poaching since the 1990s, and West Africa’s elephant populations are now mostly small, fragmented and isolated.  Whilst the international demand for ivory continues, it’s thought that poaching will as well.

The same picture can be painted for the Rhino populations, for much the same reasons.  According to the Save the Rhino charity, a hundred years ago there were some 500,000 rhinos in Africa and Asia, but this had fallen to around 70,000 by 1970.[iii]  Save the Rhino says that, by 2016, there were only 29,000 left in the wild.  In Asia both the Sumatran and Javan rhinos are listed as critically endangered, as is the African black rhino but this population across Eastern Africa recovered from around 2,300 in 1993 to between 5,000 and 5,500 in 2016.  The southern white rhino has fared rather better.  The population is said to be around 20,000, although increased poaching since 2008 is a serious threat to all rhino species.

Donkeys have never been high on any list of endangered species, but a number of African countries have put export bans in place to prevent the export of animals to China where they have long been a key part of rural life as beasts of burden and transport.[iv]  It’s not that China needs more donkey power these days, but now that there are 50% fewer donkeys in the country because of its rapid industrialisation, there is a shortage of donkey skin.  This is valuable when boiled as it produces ejiao, a form of gelatine, which is part of popular Chinese tonics and medicines with the power, it seems, to cure coughs, relieve insomnia, and revitalise the blood.  Whilst all this might seem pretty insignificant when compared to the plight of the rhino and the elephant, such shifts can have marked economic consequences.  In Niger in 2016, for example, the price of donkeys rose from $34 to $147, which prompted an export ban.  The response in more economically liberal and globalised Kenya, was to see the opening of a dedicated donkey slaughterhouse for the Chinese export market.

What to do about poaching divides both conservationists and those with interests in trade.  These divisions were apparent at the 2016 CITES meeting where over 3,500 people met and where 152 governments voted on 62 proposals to change the CITES protocols.  As you might expect of a conference devoted to international trade in endangered species, not everyone there was a conservationist.  Alongside such people from international agencies and NGOs, were hunters, animal-rights activists, scientists, and politicians who all wanted to save endangered species from extinction, although not for the same reasons.  For example, private sector owners of herds of rhino argued that creating a legal trade in horn would stop the criminal gangs while conservation groups say that legalising the trade would likely lead to extinction.

A significant part of the business of the conference was focused on elephant ivory and rhino horn.  Most elephants are listed under Appendix I of CITES, which prohibits all trade in animal parts.  In southern Africa, however, they fall within Appendix II, which allows some regulated trade.  Despite this, there is still a complete ban on the sale of ivory, although Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa want to allow limited ivory trading.  They argue that their elephant populations are large, growing and causing problems.  But 12 African countries (supported by Sri Lanka) attempted to have the elephants in these Southern African countries moved to CITES Appendix I (from Appendix II) to prevent the possibility of trade.  This was narrowly rejected in a vote.  Swaziland tried to change the CITES protocols to permit a limited regulated trade [i] in white rhino horn which has either been collected in the past from natural deaths, or recovered from poached rhino, and [ii] to allow horn to be harvested in a non-lethal way from a limited number of white rhino in the future in Swaziland.  This was also turned down.  Late in 2016, the Chinese government announced that it would outlaw the domestic sale and processing of ivory by the end of 2017.  As China has the world’s largest ivory market, this might just make a difference, it the ban is both implemented and enforced.

Private rhino owners, some of whom own well over a thousand animals and have tonnes of horn stockpiled ready for sale (like fingernails, horn grows back) want a legal trade as well.  They say that this would deter poachers, and one rhino farmer is quoted in the Economist: “I breed and protect rhinos. That’s what I do.  And I think that’s what we need to do to save them.”  Inevitably, not everyone agrees.  Many conservationists think a legal trade in ivory and horn is inherently risky.[v]  They fear that the criminal product might turn out to be cheaper than the legal one. Further, effective marketing might lead to increased demand and even more poaching.  Those who support what they term the sustainable use of wildlife, by which they mean regulated hunting and trade, say that unless governments allow this, the animals will die out in the wild.  Conservationists, meanwhile, say that will happen unless governments listen to them.

Meanwhile, in the middle of all this are the African people who live alongside these animals, and many of whom are very poor.  The Economist quotes Ross Harvey, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, who says it’s important that conservation should provide them with economic benefits.  Otherwise, he says, saving endangered animals “is going to be seen as a very middle-class issue”.[vi]

Indeed it is.  A recent Spectator article explores the issues.


[i] Details of the 2016 Great Elephant Census can be found on its website: greatelephantcensus.com

[ii] IUCN’s African Elephant Status report can be downloaded from its website: www.iucn.org by putting “African Elephant Status report” into the search line.

[iii] The Save the Rhino website has data on current rhino population.  Web link: ow.ly/tCit308Q2PQ

[iv] Allison, S. (2016, September 9). The Great African Donkey Rush. Daily Maverick. Web link: ow.ly/V8k9308Q33g

[v] The Guardian. (2016, October 1). Debate: Would a legal ivory trade save elephants or speed up the massacre?  Web link: ow.ly/eBCk30at40H

[vi] The Economist. (2016, September 29). To sell or not to sell?  Web link: ow.ly/AcdX308Q3w4

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