TIMES EDITORIAL 8TH OCT 2013:
Tanzania’s despairing Tourism Minister has demanded an official shoot-to-kill policy against elephant poachers in his country’s national parks. It is not hard to see why.
The minister, Khamis Kagasheki, estimates that between 30 and 70 adult elephants are being slaughtered for ivory each day in Tanzania alone. In Zimbabwe last month, 81 elephants were poisoned with cyanide in the biggest single act of poaching since records began. In Gabon, where forest elephants’ pink ivory is especially highly prized, nearly 20,000 animals have been lost to poachers in the past 15 years.
In Africa as a whole some 25,000 elephants are being killed each year for their tusks, at the start of a supply chain that delivers trinkets to East Asia and cash to terrorist groups across East Africa, including al-Shabaab. In parts of South Africa populations are secure for now, but if current trends persist there may be no wild herds left by 2025.
For the African elephant to be reduced to extinction in the wild would be a tragedy and a disgrace. No one who has seen one needs to be told why. To kill off these magnificent creatures is more than an assault on biodiversity. It is an assault on nature. It also denudes Africa of what should be a priceless renewable resource in the form of its most powerful magnet for foreign tourists. Moreover, it should be preventable.
Elephant populations hit bottom in the late 1980s, and only stabilised after an international ivory trade ban was passed in 1989. The ban was enforced by rangers in the field, including battle-hardened veterans of the Kenyan Wildlife Service who defied international opinion to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy that proved an effective deterrent. It was only in the first decade of this century that poachers gained the upper hand again. They did so with assault rifles built for war, and with the incentive of exploding demand for ivory from China’s rising middle class.
Quenching the demand for ivory has so far defied numerous well-intentioned efforts. Charities, governments, two British princes and at least one Chinese basketball star have tried, with little success. According to one study, 70 per cent of the Chinese still believe that elephants’ tusks regrow like fingernails.
Other strategies have been promoted for cutting the link between source and customer. Earlier this year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species urged governments to prosecute the ivory trade’s financiers with the energy it devotes to illegal drugs. Last month the UN was asked to appoint a special envoy for wildlife crime. Last week America crushed its stockpile of confiscated ivory into splinters to send a signal that there is no such thing as ivory that is fit to trade.
In principle, every little helps. In practice, nothing is working. There are two main reasons. First, China has not yet faced up to the crisis or its role in it. Campaigners claim that an edict from the Chinese President outlawing ivory carving could save a species. There is certainly a huge public education task that only Beijing can undertake, if the Chinese people are finally to understand that buying ivory is wrong.
Second, efforts within Africa to jail poachers and their middlemen routinely founder on corruption. Bribing officials to evade justice is simply too easy. Hence Mr Kagasheki’s threat to shoot to kill. If enforced it could backfire disastrously: one tourist shot dead in error would empty the Serengeti of paying guests. But the elephants cannot wait for Africa to fix its courts. The need for China to meet its responsibilities is therefore all the more urgent. China values its commercial ties to Africa, but they must be legal. Beijing must do what it takes to shut down Chinese demand for ivory, or the battle over supply will only get bloodier.