Battle to Save African Elephant Is Gaining Momentum

MIKUMI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania  — The mighty elephant staggered and keeled over in the tall wavy grass in south Tanzania, where some of the world's worst poaching has happened and still happens today.

It wasn't a murderer who targeted her but a conservation official, immobilizing her with a dart containing drugs. Soon she was snoring rather loudly, so they propped up her trunk with a twig to help her breathing. They slipped a 26-pound (12-kilogram) GPS tracking collar around the rough skin of her neck and precisely injected an antidote, bringing her back to her feet. After a brief period of inspecting the contraption with her trunk, she ambled back to her family herd.

The mission was part of a yearlong effort to collar and track 60+ elephants in and around Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, widely acknowledged as 'Ground Zero' in the poaching that has destroyed Africa's elephants in recent years.

Legal ivory markets are shrinking worldwide, and law enforcement has broken up some key trafficking syndicates, say experts.

But it's way too early to declare a turnaround. Poachers are moving to new areas with weaker elephants and traffickers are adapting, aided by entrenched corruption in the local politics. The rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the annual birth rate, which is one of the most important criteria to consider when looking at population loss. And the encroachment of human settlements is reducing the animals' range.

"The trend in poaching is going in the right direction, but we have a long way to go before we can feel comfortable about the future for elephants," said Chris Thouless of Save the Elephants, a wonderful group based in Kenya, where elephant numbers are rising again. 

In a move to crack down on demand, Britain this month announced a ban on ivory sales. In China, trade in ALL ivory and ivory products is illegal as of 2018. And in the U.S., a ban on ivory apart from items older than 100 years went into place in 2016 (however, under the recent Trump administration, this ban on ivory import was repealed and replaced).

If poaching can be brought under control here in Tanzania, there is hope that the killing of elephants can be stemmed elsewhere on the continent.

Africa's elephant population has plummeted from millions around 1900 to an estimated 415,000 today. Intelligent and highly emotional, with extremely developed social behavior, elephants have been hunted for their ivory for centuries. A ban on commercial trade in ivory across international borders went into effect in 1990, but many countries continued to allow the domestic buying and selling of ivory as if the ban meant nothing.

 

In Tanzania alone, the elephant population declined by as much as 60 percent to 43,000 between 2009 and 2014, according to the government. Much of the poaching happened in an ecosystem comprising the Selous and the adjacent Mikumi National Park. A tourist guide told The Associated Press that several years ago, he and a client saw an elephant family at sunset in the Selous reserve. They returned the next day to the unsightly scene of elephant carcasses slaughtered and used for their tusks.

The killings in Tanzania appear to have slowed down. A count in the Selous-Mikumi area last year added up 23 carcasses of poached elephants, just 20 percent of the number found four years earlier. And African elephant poaching has declined to pre-2008 levels after reaching a peak in 2011, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

It's a positive trend, but there is speculation there is a dearth of elephants to kill in many areas.

"All the 'easy' elephants are dead," said Drew McVey, East Africa manager for the WWF conservation group.

In Tanzania's Selous region, more newborn elephants are visible and confident elephants are moving more widely outside unfenced, officially protected areas, said Edward Kohi, principal research officer with the state Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and leader of the GPS collaring program funded by WWF. The collars are designed to allow rangers to track the movement of elephant herds, and then mobilize to protect them if they move into poaching hotspots. By receiving satellite-transmitted data on mobile phones, rangers could also intercept elephants that drift into a human settlement or fields of crops.

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There has also been movement to crack down on trafficking. Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who took office in 2015, took a hard line and authorities have arrested key suspects linked to trafficking syndicates.

However, the fight against the illegal ivory trade is like squeezing a balloon — when gains are made in one area, such as Tanzania, the killings intensify in another spot, like Mozambique's Niassa reserve to the south, which is linked to the Selous by a wildlife corridor. And international seizures of smuggled ivory appear to be as large as ever, a possible sign of hurried efforts by traffickers to move stockpiles before business gets too difficult.

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