The Economics of Extinction

By Kiser, Margot | Newsweek, January 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Economics of Extinction


Kiser, Margot, Newsweek


Byline: Margot Kiser

How long before Africa's rhinos and elephants are wiped out in the wild?

You wouldn't think a room as big as a warehouse could feel this airless-- not even a maximum-security warehouse, like this one. At the same time, the place seems odorless. Which also seems strange, with so much evidence of death shelved in wire-mesh bins and stacked up like firewood on all sides. But the overwhelming impression is utter soundlessness, except for the tread of armed paramilitary escorts' boots.

Few other outsiders have ever seen the inside of the Tanzanian government's notoriously secretive Ivory Room. Whenever the country's law enforcers catch ivory poachers or smugglers, or find an elephant dead of natural causes, the tusks are supposed to be sent to this repository in the African nation's largest city, Dar es Salaam. At present the government-owned stockpile holds more than 137 tons of ivory. Its retail value on the ground in Hong Kong would be more than a quarter of a billion dollars--if only the worldwide ban on ivory trade didn't prohibit such sales.

For now, however, the ivory continues to pile up. And the worst of it is that what arrives in this government warehouse represents only a fraction of the total kill in Tanzania alone, never mind the rest of the continent. Today, all of Africa is suffering one of the bloodiest wildlife slaughters in history--of not only the elephant, but the rhinoceros as well. Asia's booming economies have spawned an insatiable market for contraband luxuries and traditional "medicine." (The truth is that, contrary to persistent myth, rhino horn has no more medical value than your fingernails, which consist of the exact same substance: keratin.)

Having effectively destroyed its own wildlife supply (the Javan rhino was declared extinct on the mainland in 2011), Asia has turned to Africa's comparatively well-stocked populations. Conservationists warn that, at current rates, only drastic action will save the elephant or the rhino.

And yet no one seems able to say just what kind of action would be drastic enough to succeed. Coldblooded Asian moneymen are said to be snatching up ivory and rhino horn as investments against times of even greater scarcity. Prices have already reached unprecedented heights, with ivory commanding more than $1,000 per kilogram in Beijing, while rhino horn fetches more than 20 times that figure--far more precious than gold or cocaine.

Lured by these riches, seasoned killers are elbowing the old-style amateurs and subsistence hunters out of the poaching business. These days the illicit ivory market is fed by some of the continent's most vicious and heavily armed militant groups, including the Janjaweed of Sudan, Somalia's Al-Shabab, and the Lord's Resistance Army originally from Uganda. Meanwhile, the dwindling populations of rhinoceros have come under attack by a new order of professional criminals who mount commando assaults using helicopters, night-vision goggles, high-powered rifles, and RPGs.

Thanks to such rapacity, the continent's elephant population has fallen to the middle six figures--roughly half of what it was in the late 1970s. In Tanzania alone, poachers eliminate about 10,000 of the beasts annually--up to 9 percent of the country's total herd--according to recent testimony by James Lembeli, chairman of Tanzania's Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources, and Environment.

In other words, the country's poachers are making off with roughly double the contents of the Ivory Room every year. The threat to the rhinoceros is even direr. Across the continent, barely 26,000 remain: 21,150 of the white-rhino species, mostly in South Africa, and 4,200 of the critically endangered eastern black species, mostly in Kenya. The western black subspecies was declared extinct in November 2011. And only seven specimens of the northern white rhino subspecies survive, four of them at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy. …

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