The wholesale slaughter of African elephants, interrupted briefly by international law late in the 20th century, is back. And it’s out of control.
African elephants, the largest land animals left on this planet, have walked the earth majestically far longer than modern humans. In other words, they were here first. Not that it matters to those in the process of wiping them out.
Paleontologists trace these elephants back two million years. Modern humans go back only 200,000 years, according to anthropologists. It’s probably just a coincidence that 200,000 years ago was also a time of dramatic climate change. Of course, today’s climate change and its side effects are not what is destroying elephants today: Simple human greed and a wild array of rogue actors are doing it deliberately.
Who knows exactly how soon after his arrival modern man began killing elephants, or even how many elephants there were back then? We do know that crude man-made ivory objects have been found and dated back 25,000 years ago. In more recent history ivory has been used to make false teeth, opium pipes, piano keys, weapons, jewelry and beautiful sculpted works of art.
Just 75 years ago there were an estimated three million to five million elephants in Africa. Nothing like that number exists today, experts say.
It’s sad for many reasons, but perhaps the saddest thing is that we have learned elephants are not dumb brutes. We need not anthropomorphize elephants to recognize that, as scientists report, they are intelligent and admirable, possessing and feeling emotions. They really do feel sadness, and joy, express compassion and grief and an understanding of their world beyond what we once believed possible for any animal other than ourselves.
Still, we kill them, and we are not killing them softly. The trigger-pullers use modern military arms, night vision goggles, Kalashnikov rifles, machineguns, even rocket propelled grenades, sometimes firing from helicopters hovering above their targets. Like shooting fish in a barrel.
To be sure, there is increasing global support for wildlife preservation and creation of new parks and sanctuaries in Africa. But both the symbols and principles of conservation are being swept aside by dynamic new forces that are rushing elephants to extinction. Those forces include skyrocketing black market prices for ivory, money-hungry terrorists, and insurgents across the turbulent continent tempted by the low risk and high reward source of funding to purchase weapons, pay their followers and support their activities. Then there are big, sophisticated international criminal syndicates that move the product around the world in collusion with corrupt government officials. Law enforcement mechanisms are limp, ineffective, and disunited. Penalties are slight for those occasionally subjected to arrest.
Even North Korea has been a player in the ivory game. And since money is fungible, it can be argued that profits from poached ivory has helped to finance that country’s production of nuclear weapons.
Illicit trafficking in global wildlife trade of all kinds, including live animals, is estimated to be at least $20 billion a year, according to law enforcement officials and conservation groups. Ivory is probably only a part of that total -- perhaps $1 billion dollars annually, which is apparently enough. Today, the tusks of an elephant can fetch up to $3,000 a pound, according to the New York Times.
Researchers based in Botswana, working under the name of Elephants Without Borders, are trying to conduct an Africa-wide census of the survivors using spotter aircraft. Their findings are not expected to contradict grim predictions that elephants may be only a decade away from extinction. Between 2010 and 2012 more than 100,000 of the animals were poached, and the rate of killing since then seems to have increased dramatically.
Recently, the Chinese government declared it would halt ivory imports for one year. A good sign, although conservationists dismiss it as too limited and remain skeptical about enforcement.
There is always hope. But hope, in this case, must be accompanied by with suspicion that the final outcome for the African elephants more likely will be shaped by the inexorable negative forces still vigorously at work in the world.
At least the world will have a rich video and film record to show its future children what these fellow creatures looked like and how well they behaved. Better than nothing, but not much better.