Elephant poaching poses danger to entire African continent

Elizabeth Stoeger, News editor

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In 2013, over 50, 000 elephants out of a total of 470, 000 were killed and about 51,000 kilograms of illegally obtained ivory was confiscated.

In 1981, the largest threat to wildlife was habitat loss but this is no longer the case.

“The illegal wildlife trade has grown to such proportions that it’s actually starting to trump habitat loss. Unfortunately, habitat loss hasn’t gone away either so the cumulative effect of those two things are causing enormous devastation,” said Dr. Sam Wasser, who is the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.

Wasser presented his lecture, “Where are all the elephant poaching hotspots in Africa and what should we do about them?” on Sept. 21 in Ice Auditorium.

An outrageously large number of elephants were killed between 1979 and 1989 that elephants were officially declared endangered and were protected. However, this program did so well that at the end of 1989, these protections were lifted and as a result, poaching numbers skyrocketed then so did demand for ivory.

At the time, Wasser was living and researching in one of the poaching hot spots in Africa and came up with a revolutionary way of “measuring the DNA and hormones in poop … there’s a tremendous amount of information in the poop.”

“If you want to be able to ask really big, landscape scale questions, you can do this with their poop.”

“The illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth largest transnational organized crime in the world,” just after heroin, cocaine, and human trafficking. About $3 billion is comprised of illegal ivory.

Only about 10 percent of illegal ivory is seized and approximately one-ninth of all the elephants in Africa are poached yearly.

Wasser mused, “If you think about the fact that we are losing 50, 000 elephants a year, there’s only 470, 000 left in Africa, we really have an urgent problem especially when you consider the ramifications of their loss.”

This has major ecological, social, and economic impacts outside of the obvious harm and destruction to the elephant population.

The balance of the habitat is disrupted and the other organisms that depend on the elephants are put at risk.

The family and community dynamics of these animals are thrown into turmoil. Since elephants are such family-oriented animals, once a mother or father is killed, the child is either taken in by an aunt or is left to fend for themselves.

Tourism is a huge industry in Africa and represents a decent portion of their revenue but that entire industry depends on the wildlife, which are being killed. No animals means no more tourists and Africa loses a valuable portion of income.

Many terrorist groups are dependent on and benefit from illegal ivory sales. The biggest market for ivory is in China, the second largest market is here in the U.S. Wasser impressed upon the audience, “The impacts of this are … huge.”

Wasser also said that mass ivory sale and elephant poaching of this scale was likely the result of government corruption because the way in which ivory is transported makes it unlikely to escape completely undetected without some sort of collusion between poachers and government officials.

In the U.S, the ivory market is being buoyed by, among various political groups, the National Rifle Association, or the NRA.

Because ivory is used in some hand guns, the NRA viewed actions taken by Obama to restrict the manufacturing of hand guns with ivory as an infringement upon their Second Amendment rights and stymied the effort.

Many people think it’s a simple matter of stopping the demand for ivory, but as Wasser preached, “We can’t afford to lose one-ninth of the population every year because pretty soon, before we are able to stop demand, they’re going to be gone.”

The truth about this problem is confounding.

“Twenty-five years ago, I never dreamed I’d be standing up telling you this and telling you the truth … this is crazy,” Wasser said.

Elephant poaching is a serious threat not only to the environment in Africa but also threatens to undermine the social, political, and economic structures which are already precariously balanced.