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The ivory trade and the war on wildlife (rangers) [commentary]

In this commentary, Fred Bercovitch, wildlife conservation biologist at Kyoto University, confronts the conservation community with an unconventional approach to stopping the ivory trade and illegal elephant killing. The views expressed are his own.





Orphaned elephants in Kenya.


“Nothing creates a greater surprise among the negroes [sic] on the sea-coast than the eagerness displayed by the European traders to procure elephants’ teeth” wrote Mungo Park in Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799). Ivory, gold, and slaves were the dominant export from West Africa when Park explored the region. In his book, Park describes how elephants were tracked and killed by groups of four or five local hunters. After killing an elephant, they would use their hatchets to chop out the tusks, skin the creature, and eat the meat. The tusks would be brought to merchants to take to the coast. Park wrote that the local people “…cannot, they say, easily persuade themselves that ships would be built and voyages undertaken to procure an article which had no value other than furnishing handles to knives, etc., when pieces of wood would answer the purpose equally well.” Just like the ‘local people’ in his day, I cannot easily persuade myself that people will kill the world’s heaviest terrestrial mammal simply to extract two incisor teeth. Tusks were used not only for knife handles; the gaining popularity of billiards took a toll on elephants. In the 19th Century about 12,000 elephants were killed in Africa every year so that their tusks could be exported to Britain to make billiard balls. Each tooth produced about three to five billiard balls.



On April 25th, poachers shot and killed wildlife ranger, Agoyo Mbikoyo, in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Photo by African Parks.

The slaughter of elephants for knife handles and billiard balls had, and still has, a pernicious and dastardly impact on people protecting wildlife. The illegal killing of animals has been with us for as long as animals have been protected in national parks and the murder of their protectors has proceeded alongside. Pelican Island Game Warden Guy Bradley was assassinated on 8 July 1905, the first United States wildlife protection officer killed in the line of duty. It was cold-blooded murder. Bradley had rowed his small boat to Oyster Keys, where he disembarked and walked over to a group of men who had been shooting at double-crested cormorants, dive-bombing water birds who pick off fish after they penetrate the water’s surface. In the course of attempting to arrest the men, Bradley was shot point-blank in the chest. The murder of wildlife rangers in the line of duty has continued to this day. On 11 November 2010, Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer David Lynn Grove was murdered by a convicted felon who was being arrested for deer poaching. The killer was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to execution. In May 2014 Zambian Wildlife Authority ranger Dexter Chilunda was assassinated by poachers in Liuwa Plain National Park. In January 2015, wildlife ranger Abdullahi Mohammed was murdered by poachers in Kenya. In April 2015, wildlife ranger Agoyo Mbikoyo suffered the same fate while protecting animals in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1998 and 2015, twenty-three wildlife officers were assassinated by poachers in Zakoma National Park, Chad, with 27 wildlife rangers murdered in Africa in 2013/2014. The Thin Green Line Foundation has estimated that about 1,000 wildlife officers have been killed over the past decade. Environmental activists, as well as wildlife conservation officers, are the targets of poachers. According to Global Witness, in the first decade of the 21st Century, about 1.3 people per week were killed while working to protect Mother Nature. That number has nearly doubled; in 2014, at least 116 environmental activists were murdered, or 2.2 per week. Poachers have declared war not only against wildlife, but against the Guardians of Nature. It is time to fight fire with fire.


An elephant killed by poachers in Kenya. Photo by: Elaine Dawn/Creative Commons 2.0.



Elephant poaching is BIG business. The UN Environment Program and INTERPOL have estimated the illegal ivory trade is worth close to $200 million per year, or about 1% of the illegal trade and trafficking in flora and fauna around the globe. In 2012, between 25,000 and 35,000 African elephants were illegally butchered. In 2013, the United States pulverized six tons of ivory that had been confiscated as illegal imports over two decades. The street value was about $10,000,000,000. In January 2014, China followed suit and crushed six tons of ivory trinkets and elephant tusks, a public display repeated on 29 May 2015, when a little over 600 kg of confiscated ivory was destroyed. At the time, China announced that they planned to shut down the illegal ivory trade, but they provided no timeline. February 2014 saw France demolishing three tons of illegally imported ivory and, the same year, Chad, whose elephant population has plummeted from around 400,000 in 1970 to about 450 today, burned their stockpile of ivory. In March and April 2015, Kenya, Ethiopia, Congo, and Dubai burned close to 40 tons of elephant ivory. The population of elephants in Mozambique has plummeted from around 20,000 to 10,000 in five years. Tanzania announced on 2 June 2015 that the population of elephants in the country has nosedived from 109,051 to 43,330 in the last five years. The best scientific estimate has about 100 African elephants per day , on average, illegally slaughtered for their tusks. Despite public ivory pyres and crushing, the slaughter continues. And, African elephants are not the only proboscidian murdered for their teeth. Their cousins, the Asian elephants, are also targeted. Perhaps less than 25,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Even if each one sat on two seats in the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, only about half the stadium would be filled!

In addition to the public immolation of ivory, the world community has adopted a plethora of plans and programs to combat the illegal wildlife trade. In 2014, World Wildlife Fund – The Netherlands planted the seed for the Wildlife Justice Commission, located in The Hague, whose mission is to reduce poaching and wildlife trafficking by confronting the international criminal networks linked to wildlife crimes with more diligent prosecution and legal action. In May 2015, South African Airways instituted a ban on the transport of wildlife trophies and Kenya opened an anti-poaching forensic laboratory designed to use high technology DNA analysis for decoding the location of confiscated ivory. A new initiative, the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge was just launched that offers a financial reward to someone developing the best scientific method to thwart wildlife trafficking. But elephants are dead by the time science figures out where they were living.


Elephant in Sumatra, Indonesia



A mushrooming of organizations, and vast sums of money, are aiming their expertise at interdiction of the wildlife trade, disruption of organized criminal networks, and identification of source specimens to enhance prosecution. None of these approaches are faulty, but they are hacking at the branches, not the root, of the central problem. As they focus on a scientific pursuit of hobbling the wildlife crime syndicates, wildlife rangers are killed, elephants are murdered, and less attention and funds are devoted to reducing demand or protecting supply. After many years, the United States military and government finally realized that massive firepower and conventional war tactics were no match for guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. Neither Operation Ranch Hand (using Agent Orange to defoliate ‘hiding’ places) nor Operation Rolling Thunder (blanket bombing of targeted areas) brought victory. Poachers are well-organized militias that are engaged in guerrilla warfare, and meeting them on their own turf might yield more dividends than massive expenditures on fancy equipment.

In April 2015, at the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, the attendees issued a declaration that illegal wildlife trading was a “serious crime”, noting that “our law enforcement and criminal justice institutions have the expertise and technical capacities…” to thwart the criminal syndicates engaged in the trade. John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, claimed that such efforts “send a message to those who trade illegally in elephant ivory that the age and origin of their contraband can today be readily identified through the use of modern forensics. Therefore….the return on ‘investment’ will most likely be imprisonment, heavy fines, and seized assets.” I’m not really sure that the poachers are trembling from fear, and running away from their lucrative trade, even if they get the message.

Torching and trampling tusks, combined with hi-tech forensics, are methods to close the barn door after the horse is out. The elephants are already dead. And what are the present penalties for poachers and smugglers? In the United Arab Emirates, ivory smuggling can yield a six month prison term, as well as a fine of close to $15,000, while trace amounts of cannabis on a person result in a minimum four year sentence. In the United States, conviction of illegal trafficking in wildlife under the Lacey Act can produce the same penalty as importing less than 50 kg, or 110 pounds, of marijuana, i.e., up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.


Elephant poaching massacre site in Garamba National Park. Photo by: African Parks.



The Lacey Act celebrated its 115th birthday on 25 May 2015. It is one of the most powerful laws aimed at stopping poaching and punishing wildlife traffickers. John F. Lacey was a Union infantry soldier in the Civil War who became a Republican Congressman from Iowa. As a victim of a stagecoach robbery shortly after Yellowstone National Park was created, he was appalled by the lawlessness within the park, including the killing of animals. The federal government took action by recruiting the military to fight poachers, park vandals, and thieves. On August 17, 1886, Captain Moses Harris led 50 men in Troop M, First U. S. Cavalry Division, to Yellowstone National Park under direct orders from the military command. The cavalry was tasked with protecting the landscape and its natural inhabitants. Eight years later, Lacey spearheaded legislation that became the Game Protection Act and was the first federal document that made poaching of wildlife in the National Parks a crime, subject to prison and fines. Perhaps the time has come to bring back the military to engage in battles against poachers, their cronies, and the mobs ruling the roost.

In 2012, Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenya-based NGO, wrote: “the shooting of suspected poachers has been the most effective deterrent against poaching, but…[the]…social backlash” might have hindered conservation efforts. Wildlife poachers today are not poor villagers armed with old muskets; they are well-trained guerrilla fighters, adept at navigating in the bush, and armed with assault rifles and machine guns. Chad has formed the Mamba team, an elite group of rangers armed with sniper rifles, trained in bush warfare, and sometimes patrolling on horseback as a rapid response team to battle poachers. Some conservationists have suggested that poaching will not end if the target is the poachers because they are supported and funded by organized crime. But launching a war against elephanticide is not limited to attacking the men with the guns; targeting corrupt officials and the puppeteers in the syndicate is also in order. The real solution lies in destroying and defeating the mobs, syndicates, and mafias fueling the demand and providing the supply, but they cannot operate without their foot soldiers.

We are in the midst of a wildlife war. The elephants cannot defend themselves. It might be time to emulate the “old fashioned” methods used by the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s that were successful at reducing the illegal trade in wildlife. Increased protection of elephants in parks has been considered to be one reason why the elephant population of Uganda has increased from about 800 in 1980 to around 5,000 today. Some people think that elephants from neighboring DRC have moved to Uganda for safety.

Wars are not won by drones and bombs alone, but by boots-on-the-ground concurrent with the support of the local population. Enforcement and Education provide the foundations for saving elephants. If the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which integrates the Special Operations Forces of different military branches, such as the U.S. Army Delta Force and the U.S. Navy SEALS, can train elite soldiers in unconventional warfare, guerrilla tactics, counterterrorism, and moonless night raids to find and capture, or kill if necessary, narco-kingpins and Islamic terrorists, then they can certainly train and equip wildlife officers to battle poachers and bring the wildlife mafia to justice. Combined with a powerful education program, we can save elephants from extinction. Modern day poachers can terrorize villagers, as well as ruin the local economy, by eradicating nearby wildlife. We are not talking here about local bushmeat hunters, but about vicious syndicates that are well-armed and well-funded.


Desert elephant in Namibia



In Kenya, the average per capita income, according to the World Bank, is close to $1,200 per year; a poacher can earn the same amount from a pair of tusks. On the black market, ivory tusks are worth about $2,100/kg. Strangely enough, an African elephant tusk has a greater monetary value than a human life. The United States military pays a “Death Gratuity” to the family of soldiers killed in action. The payment is $100,000, which computes to about $1,000 or so per kilogram, or half the value of a tusk! How much is an elephant worth? The answer depends on who is doing the calculations. Although the largest African elephant tusk on record weighs a little over 100 kg, a big bull elephant today might have a pair of 50 kg tusks, or teeth that are worth about $100,000 each on the illegal ivory market. A trophy hunting fee in South Africa for an elephant costs $42,000, with the hunter spending at least an equal amount on his or her safari to kill the animal. In 2003, the Zoological Society of San Diego, along with the Lowry Park Zoo, paid the King of Swaziland $133,000 for eleven elephants that were exported to the United States for display at zoological institutions. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has estimated that an African elephant can yield approximately $1.6 million in income from tourist dollars. So, how much is an elephant worth? How much is the Grand Canyon worth? Do tourist dollars reflect the actual value of a priceless landscape that can never be duplicated? How much is Michalangelo’s statue of David worth?

What is the penalty for a wildlife trafficking kingpin? We don’t know because, to date, only one such person has been arrested. This year, Feisel Mohammed Ali, listed by INTERPOL as one of the most wanted men engaged in the illegal wildlife trade, was apprehended in Tanzania and extradited to Kenya to face charges for possession of about two tons of elephant tusks, with an estimated value of $4.5 million. As he awaits trial in jail, the impounded vehicle that he used to transport the goods has mysteriously vanished.

Plenty has been written, and debated, about whether hunting elephants is a proper conservation strategy or a death knell to the future of elephants, so the debate will not be repeated here. But we have the worst of both worlds. According to current regulations in the United States, a piano made with ivory keys that was manufactured in 1985 using tusks from an elephant killed in 1975, is legal to sell. On the other hand, a piano made the same year, but using tusks from an elephant killed in 1980, is illegal to sell. The United States is the second largest importer of illegal wildlife products, despite all efforts to halt the trade. China, the world’s worst offender, decided in February 2015 to ban, but only for one year, the import of carved African ivory statues and decorations. How much of the illegally imported ivory do you think enters the country as finely carved tchotchkes?

Opponents of the legal ivory trade suggest that the best way to save elephants is to adopt a complete ban on the ivory trade, destroy stockpiles of ivory, increase monitoring and enforcement efforts, enhance educational programs, and augment anti-poaching patrols along with instituting more severe punishments of perpetrators. Proponents of limited and controlled ivory trading suggest that the best way to save elephants is to adopt a controlled conservation management plan permitting the killing of elephants, accompanied by increased monitoring and enforcement efforts, enhance educational programs, augment anti-poaching patrols, and adopt more severe punishments for perpetrators. As is obvious, both sides share a common denominator involving education, enforcement, monitoring, and patrolling. Both sides garner “fact-based evidence” to support their position, and both sides contend that their opposition is relying upon emotional arguments. Both sides imply that corruption is an issue with the opposition program, failing to realize that corruption is an ugly and unfortunate shadow tailing either approach. Alongside these debates are a growing demand for greater fines and harsher punishments for poachers, dealers, smugglers, and their lords. Much of the illegal poaching of elephant ivory, and rhinoceros horns, is carried out by organized crime networks that are also linked to terrorists and militias aiming to overthrow established governments. To combat the wildlife crime syndicates, we need to use every arsenal possible in our kit. One item in our wildlife protection kit is science and technology; but a neglected item is support for wildlife soldiers trained to stop the slaughter.


Namibian elephants



In 2016, Cape Town will host the CITES CoP 17 [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Conference of Parties, 17th meeting], where poaching should be on the agenda. Some of the delegates may never have seen an elephant in the wild and might never see one unless drastic action is taken. No doubt modern forensics and advanced technology provide useful weapons in fighting the war, but more warriors are also needed. Many people have become hypnotized by high tech. How about devoting resources to elite wildlife rangers dedicated to stopping poachers in addition to laboratory technicians dedicated to analyzing tusk DNA? How about going on the offensive and launching attacks against the field scum and their wealthy controllers? What if we employ a four pronged pincer attack incorporating Evidence, from modern science, Economics, to support the livelihood of local people so that they do not become or shelter the wildlife villains, Enforcement, using specially trained units that will ‘shoot-to-kill’ if necessary, and Education, at both the supply and demand stages? We ought to declare a War on Poachers that aims to eliminate this scourge from the Planet. Declarations of a ‘serious crime’ only go so far; how about more boots-on-the-ground?

Poachers are viewed as “wildlife criminals”, subject to arrest and prosecution. What if we changed our mindset and considered them “wildlife terrorists”, engaged in guerrilla warfare against both rangers and wild animals? The rules of engagement change. Instead of treating a disease after it strikes, what if our efforts are aimed at preventing the disease from occurring?

We are at war. It is a war against wildlife; it is a war against the defenders of wildlife; it is a war against our children and grandchildren; it is a war against our priceless heritage; it is a war that we can win if we devote resources to winning the war. But we need to fund warriors to fight the war. We need to take the offensive and counteract by fighting fire with fire. We need more money for more foot soldiers that are willing to risk their own lives to protect our fellow inhabitants of the planet.

In African Game Trails (1910), Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “Ivory hunters and ivory traders have penetrated Africa to the haunts of the elephant since centuries before our era, and the elephant’s boundaries have been slowly receding throughout historic times…Fortunately, the civilized powers which now divide dominion over Africa have waked up in time, and there is at present no danger of the extermination of the lord of all four-footed creatures.” Unfortunately, those “civilized powers”, as well as others in the world community, have not yet woken up to the fact that elephants are in danger of going extinct in our lifetime. He wrote those words one hundred eleven years after Mungo Park pondered the fate of the African elephant due to the ivory trade. In the same book, Roosevelt lamented that: “It would be a veritable and most tragic calamity if the lordly elephant, the giant among existing four-footed creatures, should be permitted to vanish from the face of the earth.” The question is whether 111 years after those words were written, these lordly creatures will still be a sight to behold in Africa. We only have six more years to find out.




Fred B. Bercovitch, Ph.D., is a Professor at Kyoto University specializing in wildlife biology and conservation science who has authored over 120 academic papers. This article is extracted and expanded from his forthcoming book connecting conservation with evolution.