African forest elephants are being massacred into extinction

The brutal but lucrative ivory trade, fueled largely by U.S. demand, is wiping out elephants and funding terrorists

Published January 5, 2014 3:00PM (EST)

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This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetI was choking back tears by the end of my interview with Andrea Turkalo.

Turkalo, who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the founding members of the Elephant Listening Project, which is documenting elephants' ability to communicate, often using low-frequency sounds below the threshold of human hearing. She is conducting her fieldwork at Dzanga Bai, an idyllic clearing in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic (CAR) where elephants come to drink the mineral-rich waters and wallow in the mud.

Unlike their cousins on the open savannah, forest elephants are typically hidden by thick jungle and difficult to track. Scientists often locate the reclusive animals by monitoring their vocalizations, some of which can be detected from miles away.

Despite being one of the best protected sites in the region, heavily armed poachers entered Dzanga Bai last May, butchering 26 elephants, mostly mothers and their calves. They fired their automatic weapons from the observation platforms used by researchers themselves, leaving behind a horrific crime scene. The grassy glade, usually teeming with elephant family groups emotionally reuniting after weeks of wandering in small bands through the forest, was littered with piles of elephant parts, bones and blood-soaked scraps of skin.

Tragically, such scenes are becoming commonplace throughout Central Africa. An astonishing 60 percent of the region’s forest elephants have been lost in the first decade of the 21st century, and they have disappeared entirely from over half of their range in just the past 30 years. The forest elephant is regarded by biologists as a separate species from the more numerous and larger bush elephants of the African plains, but it is under the same unrelenting pressure from poachers, who are slaughtering them in order to hack off their tusks.

Elephant ivory is fashioned into intricately carved statues, jewelry and religious icons, which are in demand worldwide, but especially prized in East Asia and the Philippines—a $7 billion to $10 billion a year business. Most ivory is processed in China, but a lot of the carving is now being done in Africa itself, particularly in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The prime subject for African carvers, ironically enough, is elephants. Ivory elephants may already outnumber the living creatures, which are being killed at the unsustainable rate of 35,000 per year. Fully eight out of 10 elephants now die as a result of poaching rather than from natural causes.

The frenzy to obtain ivory is accelerating, as many Asian economies boom and prices for the increasingly rare luxury items soar. Andrea Turkalo knows all about this frenzy. Last March, she managed to escape from advancing Séléka guerilla fighters who were descending on the nation’s capital Bangui to stage the coup that ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Turkalo is now back in the states waiting for things to settle down before returning to Africa. Groups like the Séléka train their guns on innocent civilians as well as the wild elephants in their path.

The attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September, in which 68 people perished, was carried out by the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab, which routinely sends teams over the Somali border into Kenya to poach elephants. An undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League (EAL) found that 40% of Al-Shabaab’s income—as much as half a million dollars a month—comes from trafficking in illicit ivory, and the even rarer rhino horn.

“As the West continues to fight radical terrorist organizations through seizing assets in offshore bank accounts, straw companies and “charities”,” the EAL reports, “these organizations, including Al Shabaab, will rely increasingly on trafficking in contraband as a source of finance.”

A couple of dozen elephant tusks are all it took to fund the deadly attack on the mall, or to pay the yearly salaries for roughly 600 Al Shabaab fighters who are now wreaking havoc in the Horn of Africa. Darfur's Janjaweed and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army are just a two of the other violent groups that have bankrolled their activities with the white gold of elephant ivory. The same thing is happening in the Central Africa Republic, where the Séléka, a coalition of rebel bands from the desert nation Chad and elsewhere which are now sowing chaos in the troubled region, have been poaching elephants to finance their attacks.

Few places are safe from poaching. The once remote region where Andrea Turkalo does her fieldwork has been opened in the past decades to logging, which has brought armed gangs of poachers in its wake.

“Everything has changed,” Turkalo says. “Before you’d have people in the area poaching elephants for local officials or corrupt game wardens. Nowadays, the poaching is often run by international syndicates, or by outsiders, refugees who have emigrated into our area from Muslim savannah to the north. It is very well organized.”

Poaching is an increasingly high-tech activity often employing helicopters, night vision goggles, an array of high-powered weapons, satellite phones, and critically, information gleaned on the Internet. Poachers can now track some elephant movements from satellite images and other freely available information including, ironically, the research of scientists like Turkalo. When the Elephant Listening Project put a photo of one old elephant with beautiful two-meter long tusks on their website, they got a flurry of hits, largely from the Far East and China, most likely from individuals who were “scouting to find out where these animals still exist” Turkalo guesses.

The Chinese are the largest foreign investors in much of Central Africa. Chinese workers may themselves be supervising some of the poaching operations, and smuggling the ivory back home. “Wherever Chinese loggers and road builders go,” Turkalo observes, “we see a fall-off in the number of elephants.”

International organized crime groups are believed to be behind much of the poaching. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of the shadowy Laos-based Xaysavang Network, one of the globe’s most successful crime syndicates trafficking in wildlife, as well as drugs, guns and sex slaves.

Little of the wealth generated by illegal poaching trickles down to the people who actually do it. Local pigmy hunters are paid as little as a carton of cigarettes for a pair of elephant tusks, which will eventually fetch upward of $1,500 a kilo in Asia, and even more than that when the finished ivory carvings are sold on the retail market worldwide.

Wildlife poaching is still not perceived as a real crime in much of Africa, although it is illegal on the books. Turkalo explained that, “Many locals see elephants as pests,” who trample their gardens and endanger local residents. Poachers who are caught frequently get little more that a token slap on the wrist before they are sent back to their villages to continue their illegal hunting. This is beginning to change as international pressure is forcing governments to at least look like they are getting serious about the problem.

But the problem will never be solved in Africa alone. The poorest people on earth won’t be able to resist the runaway foreign greed for ivory, if consuming countries don’t crack down on their own demand. That means China for sure, but also the United States, which is, surprisingly, the second largest market in the world for ivory, according to a study conducted of thousands of retail outlets in 16 American cities by British-based conservation group Care for the Wild International (CWI) in 2007.

Last year, the New York District Attorney’s office pursued two high-profile prosecutions against retailers in Manhattan who were selling nearly a ton of illicit ivory worth $2 million in their curio shops. Both merchants, who pled guilty, were spared jail time, but had their ivory confiscated in addition to being slapped with hefty fines, which they paid directly to the Wildlife Conservation Society for use in its elephant conservation programs worldwide.

Federal officials are also trying to crack down. Earlier this month, in a symbolic gesture, six tons of elephant tusks and ivory trinkets worth tens of millions of dollars on the black market, were ground to gravel between the jaws of a huge steel rock-crusher at the National Wildlife Property Repository just north of Denver. This trove represented the better part of 20 years of contraband seized by customs officials.

One reason our domestic trade in ivory is flourishing is an ambiguity in the law. While it is prohibited to sell new ivory smuggled in after a 1989 ban by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), you can still sell ivory objects that were imported before that date. Ivory sellers have used this exception to stain new ivory to make it look old; there is currently no good way to distinguish authentic antique ivory from the artificially aged newer material. Another loophole is that tusks from African elephants can be legally brought into the U.S. as hunting trophies, many of which eventually make their way into carvings in the marketplace.

Both here and in China, the legal ivory market serves as a front and a cover for the illegal market, according to Elizabeth Bennett the Vice President of Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Bennett argues that the U.S. needs to employ its vast intelligence capacity to track the money from ivory trafficking as thoroughly as it has been tracking money in the drug and arms trade and international terrorist networks. When I asked her if the U.S. should put more pressure on China to clean up its act, Bennett responded that, “We need to clean up our own act first. The U.S. can’t throw stones while its own laws are a mess.”

Bennett and the WCS are calling for a moratorium on the sale of all forms of ivory, which, if implemented, would potentially cripple the illegal trade and set a powerful example for other countries to follow. There is currently legislation in New York and other states to enact this.

Meanwhile, the WCS is working on a social media outreach in China to educate the countries new computer-literate generation on the tragic consequences of the trafficking in ivory for Africa’s elephants. Another hopeful development is the three-year, $80 million program of the Clinton Global Initiative to help beef up enforcement in Africa and around the world.

“Unless the killing stops, African forest elephants are expected to be extinct within 10 years,” Hillary Clinton told the Initiative’s supporters in New York this September. “I can’t even grasp what a great disaster this is ecologically, but also for anyone who shares this planet to lose a magnificent creature like the African forest elephant seems like such a rebuke to our own values.”

Clinton, was flanked on stage for the announcement by seven African heads of state, signaling perhaps a new willingness of governments there to put serious pressure on poachers.

Andrea Turkalo, however, has a wait-and-see attitude. “I just hope this isn’t another top-down approach,” she told me. “We need to give support to people on the ground because that is where it starts”—people like her friend, local game warden Christian Ndadet who has toughed it out through the chaos in the Central African Republic and held the worst of the poaching at bay. Guards like Ndadet risk their lives every day (hundreds have already been killed) in the effort to protect Africa’s elephants.

Until these courageous individuals are backed up fully by governments and ordinary citizens around the world, the prospect for Africa’s elephants remains grim.

Learn how you can help save elephants at 96 Elephants.

By Richard Schiffman

Richard Schiffman is the author of two books and a poet based in New York City as well as a former freelance journalist for National Public Radio. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and leading literary journals. His radio stories have been heard on "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," Weekend Edition and Monitor Radio.

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