Friday, December 7, 2018

Into the Eye of the Elephant Storm: Poaching in Africa’s Last Great Elephant Refuge

Guest post by Adam Byers, MEnvSc Candidate at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get gazing up into the gentle, intelligent eyes of a 5-tonne African elephant. But that’s exactly where I found myself six months ago, deep within the borders of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Two members of a small bachelor herd in Chobe National Park, Botswana

I was nearing the end of a camping safari across the grasslands of southern Africa, and just when I thought it wasn’t possible to top the incredible wildlife I’d already experienced, Africa proved me wrong in a surreal heart-stopping moment. A towering young bull elephant emerged from the bush and passed by our jeep close enough to touch. It’s the kind of experience you never forget. But it’s an experience that may soon cease to be possible.

The African bush elephant is a threatened species as designated by the IUCN (Blanc, 2008), the global organization that assesses at-risk wildlife. Tracked since 1986, the species is currently listed as “vulnerable”, and recent trends suggest populations are in decline (Chase et al., 2016). Making matters worse, this year elephant conservation was dealt a devastating blow that is already having major consequences: in May, the new president of Botswana revoked the country’s zero-tolerance policy on poaching and stripped the weapons from Parks officers. Mere weeks later, the place of my elephant encounter was transformed into a scene of destruction and violence. By September, surveys carried out by the charity Elephants Without Borders found 87 dead elephants killed for their tusks.

Botswana supports among the densest populations of elephant in Africa (from Chase et al., 2016)
Botswana is home to the world’s largest population of elephants, and has long been esteemed for its tough stance on poaching. A commentary released last year by researchers from the University of Botswana emphasized the nation’s shoot-to-kill order as responsible for reducing illegal hunting (Mogomotsi & Madigele, 2017), which is a leading cause of elephant mortality, particularly for tusked males (CITES, 2017). The belief was widespread, shared with me by guides and park staff from Zimbabwe to South Africa, who lauded Botswana’s approach. So it’s no wonder the policy reversal was met with international outrage, which only intensified with the discovery of dozens of poached elephants in the Chobe park and other protected areas.

The government denied the claims, insisting the numbers were much lower, but in a continent still rife with corruption it is difficult to know who to believe. But whether it’s one elephant or one hundred, the harm is unacceptable. And the fact that it followed so closely after the disarmament of the country’s anti-poaching unit can be no coincidence.

Further investigation, however, shows that despite the likely connection, the government may have done no wrong. The shoot-to-kill policy was never official legislation, and as I was warned during my adventure, there were no real criteria before escalating to violence – simply being in a protected area after dark was sufficient for guards to open fire. This led to several years of clashes between anti-poaching units and citizens of neighbouring nations.

Proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE) from 2003 to 2016; the red line represents the level at which half of all deaths are due to illegal hunting or poaching (adapted from CITES, 2017)
Regardless of the controversies and merits of the former anti-poaching strategy, scholars are quick to point out that this sort of harsh response was only a band-aid solution. In an impoverished country ravaged by AIDS, inequality, and lack of clean water, poaching offers a high-risk but extremely tempting escape. Ivory values peaked at over $1,700 per kilo (CAD) in 2015, and with a pair of adult male tusks weighing up to 90kg, a single elephant could represent a lifetime’s salary. The price of ivory has decreased since China’s ban earlier this year, but with a thriving black market trade, and U.S. President Trump reversing a ban on ivory imports, the world is far from a cohesive anti-poaching strategy.

Given the lucrative market, it’s no wonder that a sophisticated system of poachers has descended on the country, especially now that the risk is reduced. But as one ranger in Botswana explained, these poachers are not necessarily bad men. They are sons and brothers. Husbands. Fathers.

If we want to fix the poaching problem, we need to dig deeper for a solution. We need alternative livelihoods for the marginalized men that are turning to poaching in order to provide for their families. Conservation and humanitarian NGOs operating around the world have long tried to implement programs to encourage alternate sources of food and income, but unfortunately few of these programs have had adequate funding or infrastructure to measure the results. To assess whether conservation benefits were being achieved, the IUCN conducted interviews as part of an enlightening assessment of 15 alternative livelihood projects in Central Africa (Wicander & Coad, 2015). In many cases funding was inadequate to meet program targets, and the majority lacked sufficient monitoring to measure progress. These findings were echoed in a systematic review conducted by Dilys Roe and colleagues (2015). The authors found only 21 studies that adequately assessed conservation outcome of alternative livelihood projects, only a third of which were from Africa, and none of those specifically dealt with poaching. Scientists are often quick to raise problems, and usually to suggest solutions, but there is also a need to follow through to determine whether those solutions are working. There is a clear gap that needs to be addressed to determine which interventions are effective at both reducing poaching and meeting socioeconomic goals, and researchers and NGOs must work together to ensure adequate funding is available for such programs.

In the last days of my trip I visited a local primary school where I had the opportunity to meet both students and teachers. Despite its troubles, Botswana is a fast-advancing nation and a leader in education among its peers. Their children today have more choice and freedom than ever before, and it is up to them to set the course for the world’s last great elephant refuge. And I have no doubt they will succeed if we just give them the opportunity, because like their gentle giant neighbours, they are kind and enthusiastic. Thoughtful. Intelligent.
To see it, you just need to look into their eyes.

Photo by Adam Byers
Much of the information in this posting is taken from first-hand experiences and conversations in Botswana and neighbouring nations. For fuller appreciation of the complexities of the issue, I recommend reading the news articles linked above and the referenced studies and documents below. For more on endangered elephant populations or to find out how you can help, visit the IUCN or World Wildlife Fund.


References
Blanc, J. (2008). Loxodonta africana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Chase, M. J., Schlossberg, S., Griffin, C. R., Bouché, P. J., Djene, S. W., Elkan, P. W., ... & Omondi, P. (2016). Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants. PeerJ, 4, e2354.

CITES. (2017). MIKE Report: Levels and Trends of Illegal Killing of Elephants in Africa to 31 December 2016 - Preliminary Findings. Convention on International Trade n Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Mogomotsi, G. E., & Madigele, P. K. (2017). Live by the gun, die by the gun: Botswana’s ‘shoot-to-kill’policy as an anti-poaching strategy. South African Crime Quarterly, 60, 51-59.

Roe, D., Booker, F., Day, M., Zhou, W., Allebone-Webb, S., Hill, N. A., ... & Shepherd, G. (2015). Are alternative livelihood projects effective at reducing local threats to specified elements of biodiversity and/or improving or maintaining the conservation status of those elements? Environmental Evidence, 4(1), 22.

Wicander, S., & Coad, L. (2015). Learning our Lessons: A Review of Alternative Livelihood Projects in Central Africa. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

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