Poaching is driving vulnerable species to the brink

The challenges elephants and rhinos face in Africa

Facing extinction: the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum). Image: BMT2016

Africa is still in the midst of a poaching crisis, especially in the case of the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum). Although from 2001 to 2007 poaching levels were extremely low (in some cases less than seven rhinos poached a year), both elephant and rhino poaching rose dangerously high in 2008 to 1,215 rhino in 2014, and this year are still at 1100.

The elephants fare no better, as the U.N. reported up to 100 elephants are being killed a day in Africa by poachers. In 1969 there were an estimated an estimated 1.3 million Savannah elephants alive in Africa. Today there might be less than 400,000, (with around 20,000 African elephants being killed by poachers each year).

Rhinos and elephants are poached for their horns and tusks respectively. Although the international trade of ivory was banned in 1989 by many countries, recent years have shown the demand rise once more on the black market.  Rhino horn and elephant ivory have two main uses: traditional use in Chinese medicine, and ornamental use (such as the use of rhino horn for making ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers). However, as both rhino horn and ivory are becoming rarer, the are quickly becoming status symbols- both in the sense of individuals being able to afford the contraband, and being influential enough to not have it confiscated by authorities.

An elephant carcass poached for ivory. Image: Ina96

Nowadays, fewer Rhinos than elephants are being killed. Up to August this year, 506 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, which is nearly 200 fewer than last year, at the same time, incursions into the national parks where these rhinos dwell increased to over 1850, from 1700 last year.

However, these statistics are not positive. If poaching raids in Africa are becoming more frequent and yet the amount of successful kills are becoming rarer, the truth is just that there are fewer and fewer rhinos left to hunt. This means poachers have started turning more and more towards the African elephant.

And poaching is not the only threat to these magnificent megafauna. The cost of keeping rhino on privately owned land has significantly increased over the last few years of the poaching epidemic, as the animals require a lot of protection. This means a lot of private owners are selling the animals. Civil war and habitat loss are also huge issues for both these animals which require large areas of land to roam in. Elephants are in particular danger of conflict with human settlements, as they are very strong and can be very destructive, uprooting water pipes, destroying livestock fences and damaging buildings.

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) Image: Charles J Sharp

Elephants are of course huge mammals with long lifespans, are therefore take a long time to develop. African elephants stay in a baby stage, still feeding of milk from its mother, to up to 10 years of age. The adolescent age follows until they have reached around 17 years of age, where they reach sexual maturity, but do not begin to mate until they are at least 20. The gestation period of an african elephant is almost 2 years, at 22 months. Herein lies the problem. This, along with the long growth period means that elephant populations replenish very slowly. In addition, it is usually the largest females females that are shot for ivory, as they have the largest tusks. This can be devastating to herds, as elephants are matriarchal, with the largest female often leading the group. With her killed, herds often become fractured and even more destructive, causing ever increasing conflict with human settlements. And that’s not the only human conflict. As fewer and fewer animals exist poachers are coming into ever increasing contact with the rangers protecting them. Around the world, 595 rangers died while working between 2009 and 2016. Many of them were murdered by armed poachers, whilst in many African countries rangers are on shoot to kill orders when dealing with poachers. Operations such as the Akashinga, a group of all female, militaristic, rangers in Zimbabwe are trained to military standards and armed with high calibre weapons. Even with admirable groups like this, the problem of poaching seems to continue unabated.

As the amount of poaching increases, the topic becomes more and more important to governments and agencies worldwide. Lots of African governments have thousands of tons of confiscated ivory in storage. Two years ago in 2016 Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta set ablaze 105 tonnes of ivory in a pyre to send a clear statement to the world that the ivory trade was condemned, whilst Botswana turned some ivory into artwork as educational tools. And yet just last month, Elephants Without Borders (a charitable organization dedicated to conserving wildlife) reportedly found almost 100 elephant carcass dead in an area of national park in Botswana, most with tusks removed.

Poaching is a problem that is not going away unless there is strong international response  to the issue. Trade of both ivory and rhino horn must be condemned at every level, making the ownership of ivory worthless, and not a status symbol. Already, the Northern  White Rhino is functionally extinct with only two surviving females and, unless action is taken quickly, the remaining species of elephant and rhino in Africa may go the same way.