Tue Feb 27th, 2007 at 05:20:43 AM EST
While browsing the headlines this morning, I found this headline: "Price of Ivory Accelerates the Extinction of African Elephant" (my translation).
I thought that immensely interesting, because when I was volunteering in Balule Private Nature Reserve some 3.5 years ago, the common wisdom was that there were far too many elephants. Three weeks earlier I had heard the exact same in my previous volunteering in Tembe Elephant Park.
So I frowned at reading the headline and decided to do a little dig.
The BBC Website also has a recent piece, but without the inflammatory headline and tells you the actual story:
DNA tracks origin of seized ivory
A trail of DNA has helped investigators trace the biggest ever consignment of contraband ivory seized since 1989 to savannah elephants in Zambia. Scientists extracted DNA from 37 tusks recovered from the shipment, which was seized in Singapore in June 2002.
They compared this data against a continent-wide map showing genetic differences and similarities between African elephants.
Details appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Aha! So I went to see whether the article is on-line, as they usually do at PNAS, and by jove! - it is: Using DNA to track the origin of the largest ivory seizure since the 1989 trade ban.
So what are those details done by the study of Wasser et al.?
According to the Beeb:
The 2002 seizure in Singapore consisted of 532 tusks packed in a 20ft container that had been shipped to the Far East from Malawi in south-east Africa. It also contained 42,000 hankos, small blocks of solid ivory used to make signature stamps, or chops, that are popular in China and Japan.
The researchers compared genetic sequences from the tusks with those in a database of DNA sequences from African elephants whose geographic origin was known.
The results showed that the ivory came from savannah elephants in a small region of southern Africa, with Zambia as the focal point.
From the article:
The rest of the article rips into a political screed and pleads for the re-enactment of stringent law-enforcement:
The international community virtually stopped ivory poaching once (14), and it can stop it again. The enhanced law enforcement effort that concided with the 1989 ban dramatically suppressed the illegal ivory trade. However, believing that the problem was solved, western aid was largely withdrawn by 1993. Law enforcement rapidly declined in poor African countries, and poaching began to steadily increase all over again (14). A more comprehensive approach is needed this time, one that combines law enforcement with DNA analyses, education, and improved management. We have to act now, before it is too late. We hope that the results of this study will encourage such timely conservation efforts, thereby helping to curb a criminal trade that is once again imperiling elephants.
Even while I'm sympathetic to this position, I must note, from a scientific perspective, that I find it baffling to find sentences as "We have to act now" in a scientific article.
Apart from poaching because people are, you know, starving, there is a cruel irony related to the fact that ivory prices have shot up - because of the China effect, as the article notes itself.
How is there irony? Because I learned in 2003 that then and even today there are massive elephant overpopulation problems to the south of Zambia - as a direct result of successful conversation strategies. Have a search on "Elephant Population" on http://allafrica.com/ to see how many reports actually mention burgeoning elephant populations. Because Wasser is right when he says to the BBC, "Elephants are majestic animals and are not trivial to the ecosystem. They are a keystone species and taking them out significantly alters the habitat."
Right. Now take that the other way around. Since, if you let the elephants in, they will change the habitat. Dramatically. One of the greatest threats to Kruger Park (beside mass tourism) is not reduction of biosphere due to desertification by Climate Change - but deforestation generated by the forest destructive elephants. Elephants open up the terrain and prevent a savannah closing up. They are capable to tear a tree to pieces by ripping of enormous branches or push it over completely. It's an awing sight, especially because an elephants pulls it off with a perfect halcyon demeanour.
People tend to forget that, in the end, Kruger National Park is a park. It has fences. It is finite. It will not allow for migration during overpopulation. It is, in other words, managed to a certain degree. And also: this is Africa. An equivalent policy of building corridors and a pan-African environmental policy such as the current European one does not exist, to the best of my knowledge (but hell, this is only week 4 here, so I'm not that reliable yet).
So you have, say, 6000 elephants too many. Estimates are that in less than 15 years, there will be 24.000 too many. What do you do?
Because now it's time for the C-word.
In May 2005, the southern African nations (among others South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia) came together in Victoria Falls and reached the following recommendations:
11. It is recommended that application of lethal means, specifically culling, be approved as partand parcel of a range of options for the management of elephant populations. The
implementation of culling should be informed by the application of adaptive management
principles, while also not excluding the application of and learning from other viable
12. It is recommended that other management tools such as translocation, contraception and migration corridors be applied as medium to long-term management interventions.
Pdf of report here
The world became almost literally too small. The ferocity erupting in 2005 was reported widely and organizations as Greenpeace and IFAW had a field day in depicting the African velds drenched with gore. Doomed to be an environmental contrarian, I'd like to point out my post at ET in which I previously laid out my view on why culling should become an integral component of managing the elephant over-population for Kruger here.
The inevitable seemed to have happened in the foray of elephant hugging cutesiness. Martinus van Schalkwyk, the SA Environmental Minister, grew silent and dodged the subject ever since. For the whole of 2006 I have not heard anything about the culling proposal in the press and have not been in contact with my South African contingent about this subject. Which is why this diary will need a follow-up one day, since I intend to find out...
South Africa already has a policy to trade in ivory, albeit very strict and very regulated. And here I'm thinking: why not cull, dump the ivory on the market, reduce prices and make poaching financially insolvent, while working on a grander scheme to set up corridors?
But here we are.
We have an environmentally focused scientist bemoaning the rise of poaching driven -partly- by the spike in ivory price.
And on the same continent, not even that far away, we have bulging elephant populations destroying their own habitat.
Now that alone is irony. But when I consider that a (potential?) mechanism to reduce the ivory price by government regulated ivory trade from culling practices was (most likely) snubbed - by western environmental lobby organizations - I begin to severely disconnect.
Could regulated culling reduce ivory prices? Don't know. Want to find out. Any help welcome.