Let’s make 2018 The Year of the Elephant

I’ve enjoyed a relationship with the elephants of Zambia stretching back fifty years. As a child visiting Luangwa Valley, I was charmed by their gentle, playful personalities, their massive size and their intelligence. To encounter one of these majestic animals up close is an awe-inspiring experience.

It is a thrill that I would like my four children to experience before humanity persecutes these noble beasts to extinction. Our family will be travelling to Luangwa in July to see these elephants in their natural habitat in the heart of Africa. I am hoping my children will experience the same sense of awe that I did many years ago and become champions of elephant conservation.

I am not being melodramatic. Since I arrived in Zambia as a six-year-old boy, the elephant population has been decimated by poaching and the illicit ivory trade. In the 1960’s there were 250,000 elephants in Zambia. Now just 21,000 remain. In some parks such as Sioma Ngwezi in Zambia’s south west, an ‘elephant holocaust’ has reduced the once thriving elephant populations to less than fifty.

Elephant’s relationship with humanity has never been a happy one. The ten million elephants that once roamed Africa were always hunted by the local population, but it barely dented their numbers. But in the nineteenth century, the senseless slaughter by the colonial powers began. Hunting was the sport of ‘gentlemen’ and reputations were forged on the scale of the carnage they wreaked on Africa’s wildlife. The legendary scout Sir Fredrick Selous butchered 548 head of game in one trip to Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) including 24 elephants and 9 rhinos. Lord Delamere, (the lovable rogue mentioned in ‘Out of Africa’ and considered the leading settler of Kenya), ‘secured 14,000 pounds of ivory … by shooting elephant with a maxim gun’. By 1900 there were fewer than 6,000 elephants in the whole of Africa south of the Zambezi and none in the area now known as the Kruger National Park. Thankfully elephants have made something of a miraculous recovery in that region although the situation is dire in the rest of the continent.

The end of the colonial era provided no respite to the elephants as poaching, human population growth, loss of habitat, government corruption, civil wars, inadequate funding for wildlife protection, the easy availability of automatic weapons and the poverty of the local population took their toll. Their numbers dropped from three million in 1970 to under 400,000 in 2016. There was a brief respite for the elephants in the last decade of the twentieth century as the CITES elephant ban on the ivory trade took effect, but the lull in the butchery was short lived.

As demand for ivory surged in the emerging superpower of China, poaching skyrocketed and 50,000 elephants were killed in both 2012 and 2013 to meet the demand. Huge numbers of African building projects were financed by the Chinese whose workers wanted to bring an ivory trophy or two back home no matter what impact their souvenir hunting had on the elephant population. It looked all over for the African elephant.

And yet despite all the doom and gloom I believe that 2018 will be the ‘Year of the Elephant’. There are two reasons for my optimism and they are based on the empowerment of the local African population and a rethink on the ivory trade in China.

The future of the elephant has always depended upon the local communities who live on the fringes of Africa’s national parks. It is they who will determine whether elephants survive as a species or are poached to extinction. During the last two hundred years these natural hunters and land owners have been disenfranchised firstly by the colonial powers and then by the autocratic and sometimes corrupt authorities that followed. When they receive no economic benefit from the wildlife that raids their crops, destroys their livelihoods and damages their villages, they are inclined to side with the poachers to supplement their meagre incomes. But in recent years there has been a recognition that wildlife conservation must involve these struggling communities to save the elephant.

Private companies with a social conscience and the backing of global conservation groups have taken over the running of many of the national parks including African Parks and the Bushcamp Company. Their sustainable wildlife programmes have employed local communities as rangers, used local intelligence against poachers and returned a percentage of the tourist income to these communities. Programmes such as Conservation South Luangwa http://cslzambia.org/ have been designed to win the hearts and minds of the local community. Instead of assisting the poachers, the locals now view poaching as stealing a valuable resource that generates much of their income.

Just as Chinese demand for ivory seemed insatiable, the Chinese government stepped in with a public awareness information campaign backed by popular figures such as NBL legend Yao Ming and supported by Britain’s Princes William and Harry. The message was designed to convince the Chinese workers in Africa not to bring ivory home and to make ivory ownership as socially toxic in China as it has become in the West. The campaign worked. A recent Chinese survey showed 95% support for an ivory trade ban. At the end of December 2017, the ban was enforced, and 172 ivory carving factories were closed. Today the price of ivory has collapsed from $2,100 to $500 per kg and there is real hope that the industrial slaughter of the world’s most magnificent land animal may be over.

But there is no room for complacency. Unscrupulous traders are always seeking new markets and a resumption of the ivory trade. We must remind governments around the world that the ivory trade is a disgrace and legal hunting only provides cover for the illicit activities of the poaching gangs and ruthless traders. Heroic organisations such as Conservation South Luangwa that hold the front line against the poachers need considerable funding from the public, NGOs and governments if they are to succeed.  If we can lobby our politicians to do the right thing, there is a real chance that elephants will survive in the wild. And what a gift it will be, not just for our children but for all future generations if these magnificent animals continue to grace the African landscape forever.

  • Photo by The Bushcamp Company, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

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