Ivory Ghosts

By Daniel, Elliot | Geographical, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Ivory Ghosts


Daniel, Elliot, Geographical


Will this be the last we see of the magnificent African elephant? Eliot Daniel travelled to Africa to investigate the rise of poaching following a decision to lift the ivory ban

MACHINE GUNS COCKED AND at the ready, we trekked deep into the Kenyan Tsavo National Park. The jagged spikes of the commiphora bush tore at my body, the dust from the baked red earth stained my clothes blood red. There in a clearing lay the slaughtered elephant. Its bones bleached white by the sweltering sun, its hardened skin lay lifeless, draped like an ancient fishing net on a discarded boat. Scattered remains lay where the great beast had been brought down, its tusks destined to become a trinket on a mantlepiece in a faraway land. Everything reeked of death. The musky scent pervading the air is one I will not easily forget.

The six Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers I had joined have the often dangerous and difficult job of protecting the park's elephant population from poachers -- a job made increasingly difficult following the landmark decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to lift the worldwide ban on ivory trading by allowing Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to sell stockpiled ivory to Japan.

I left the rangers to join Danny Woodley, senior warden with the KWS, a man who, with one small plane patrols an area the size of Israel for bandits armed with AK-47 rifles. From his two-seater Husky aircraft his bespectacled eagle eyes scanned the vast terrain for signs of poaching. Danny, instrumental in the elephant population surveys, has been a warden for over 12 years. Since 1989, the KWS have been using a Global Positioning System to count the elephants, whereas previously it was a case of counting them, rather randomly, from the air. The wardens put their own lives at risk. In July of this year near Documelee, Kenya, one of the rangers was killed when a group of nine Somali poachers or shiftas opened fire.

Human natured

Below me, a wild herd of elephants roamed freely and majestically. One of the most popular animals on Earth, these gentle intelligent giants are in some ways similar to humans. Capable of teaching the ripe old age of 70, elephants possess a strong sense of family and like us, they bury their dead, grieve and return to pay homage. Females have a 28-day menstrual cycle and go off into the bush while menstruating, using vine leaves as sanitary towels. Able to communicate with sounds too low for humans to hear, elephants express joy on greeting old friends or at the birth of a baby and also play games.

The dying trade

For over 5,000 years humans have lusted after their ivory, yet it was during the 1970s and 80s when the situation reached crisis point. As Woodley explains, "No longer were we dealing with the traditional Walangulu bow and arrow hunters, but with bands of poachers armed with automatic machine guns." Meanwhile, in the consuming nations, machines replaced hand tools and ivory products took minutes to make instead of weeks. Ivory became billiard balls, piano keys, carvings, necklaces and hanakas -- signature seals given to boys in Japan to mark the beginning of their manhood. Elephants' feet became umbrella stands, ears turned into coffee tables, penises became golf bags and tails were used as fly swats.

In 1970 there were over two million elephants across Africa, but by 1989 a mere 615,000 remained. The ivory trade looked set to decimate the African elephant. Established quotas and controls proved useless as illegally poached ivory mysteriously found its way into shipments of legal ivory, bound for foreign counties. Corruption at all levels was rife. In 1988, 94 per cent of Africa's ivory stocks in international trade were of illegal origin. By 1989, 70,000 elephants were slaughtered annually -- setting the species on target for extinction by the end of the century. Drastic measures had to be taken, and finally, in 1989, a much welcomed worldwide ban on the trade of ivory was announced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), -- a convention established in 1973 to protect plants and animals against over-exploitation through international trade. …

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