In Tandem with Africa and Asia
The Elephantine cost of trade in Africa
‘At the current rate of poaching, elephants will not exist in Africa in 12 years time’ Kelvin, educational officer for Game Rangers International (GRI), explains to a group of American & European tourists at the Lilayi Elephant Orphanage near Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. In the background, Musole, a 2 year old bull elephant plays in the mud, seemingly enjoying the audience. Named after the ranger shot dead by a poacher whilst trying to protect his mother in 2014, he will be released back into the wild at Kafue National Park in 2016. We cycled out to the park, 250km west of Lusaka, spanning an area the size of Wales, to find out more about the economics of the ivory trade and the poaching crisis that could destroy Africa’s largest mammal…
30,000 African Elephants are being slaughtered every year; Musole - a lucky Orphan, so far...
‘We’ve already lost all rhinos from the park and the battle is on to save the elephant population’ Sport Beattie tells us at the GRI anti-poaching HQ, strategically located at Hook Bridge, the only secure crossing of the Kafue river after which the national park is named. Sport, born and bred in Zimbabwe, founded GRI in 2007 after running a similar operation in Cambodia. His first career though was in the British army and the camp from which all anti-poaching operations are run oozes militaristic efficiency & organisation clearly lacking from the police roadblock on the bridge.
Education is the most important tool to solve the problem (Kelvin & teacher Duncan at local community school)
Although Sport has put his military background to good use in helping to train rangers in bush tactics and firearms training, his approach to the poaching problem is holistic and long-term, focusing very much on the human side. ‘Education is the most important tool we have’, he muses. GRI works with 25 community schools around the park, helping these communities understand, the importance of conservation for their local economy. Tourism is the main driver of (legal) income and employment in and around the park, with poaching a close (illegal) second.
The right way to shoot an elephant
The supply chain for ivory and other illegal bushmeat is complex but Sport was able to simplify it with a diagram (see picture below) that wouldn’t look out of place in one of my student’s textbooks. GRI and other anti-poaching operations work at the point of supply and try and deter poaching by increasing the chance of poachers getting caught and prosecuted. But the economics are challenging: A single male elephant's two tusks can weigh more than 120kg, with a kilo of ivory fetching as much as $2500 on the black market. Although the poachers themselves probably get less than 2% of that, one elephant’s tusks could be worth around more than $5000 to a local poacher. In this part of the world, that is sadly worth risking your life for as I explored on my last trip - 'What is the Value of Life in Africa'.
Sport with his diagram; Patrol Data - note that bikes are a key vehicle used by poachers
Nonetheless, Sport and his team are having some success. Kingsley, one of his rangers is a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ but he acknowledges that the financial rewards were better poaching. ‘I could afford to buy beer then’ he smiles but he is happy in his current role, as is his wife, who forced him to stop poaching when she found out!
‘We’d like to work further up the supply chain’, Sport reflects ‘but we don’t YET have the political power to make a difference’ he adds optimistically. Unfortunately the small funnel that represents the middle of the supply chain is full of powerful criminal syndicates.
For example al-Shabab, the Somalia-based wing of al-Qaida, is reported to raise $600,000 a month from poaching to fund its activities. In Uganda, where we started this economic cycle, the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for enslaving children, also raises money through poaching. Chinese mafia organizations mostly do the purchasing and distribution of ivory after it's been obtained, selling it predominantly in China and Southeast Asia but sometimes to markets in the U.S. and even the UK, according to the UK's Week newspaper1.
As we head towards Asia next year, it will be interesting to explore the demand side of this market. Sadly, without a reduction in the demand, most of the admirable work that the likes of GameRangers do will be in vain. The recent annoucement by the Chinese governement to ban all ivory trade, although without a set date, is a welcome first step2. Education in the region has to play a crucial role in limiting the demand, which would continue after the ban in any case. A recent survey3 found that more than two thirds of Chinese respondents said they thought tusks grew back like fingernails! That is obviously an easy mis-understanding to clear up but it could still be a tough sell in a region where ivory has long symbolised wisdom and nobility.
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A long walk to Freedom
Burning East African supply in 2011 but changing mindsets in Asia will be critical to reducing demand for ivory
1 & 3 - see 'The Tragic Price of Ivory', The Week, March 15th 2014.
2 see National Geographic, November 12th 2015.