Imagine an Africa without elephants

Poaching is a crime and its driving elephants to extinction

Poaching is a crime and its driving elephants to extinction

Illegal killing of elephants for ivory is on the increase in Africa. It’s most rife in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mozambique and Gabon. The New York Times, which broke the story about elephant poaching recently, explained why: the vast majority of the illegal ivory — as much as 70 percent — is flowing to China.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) says poaching is wildly going on in elephant range states in Africa because of several reasons: rich buyers are getting hungrier for ivory, lack of political will and the lenient penalties for wildlife crimes. In Uganda criminals are fined Shs50, 000 or spend a few months in jail.

According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 12,000 elephants are slaughtered each year to feed the demand for ivory in unregulated markets in Africa and Asia. Needless to say, if the killing is not stopped soon there will be no more elephants at all.

Once, the forests and savannahs of Africa were home to more than a million rhino. Less than a hundred years ago, as many as five million elephants ranged across the continent. But European game hunters shot them for trophies. Poaching became rife. At the same time, humans destroyed large areas of their habitat, bringing communities into conflict with wildlife – particularly elephants, which can pose a threat to people’s crops.

Statistics by UWA indicate that Uganda had 30,000 elephants in the 60s and today remains with slightly over 4,000 elephants. The story of the rhino is even more tragic. Rhinos are extinct in Uganda yet in the 60s there was the black rhino, the northern white rhino and the eastern black rhino.

Elephants are killed for their tusks. Protected gorillas are butchered for sale as a specialty dish. Tigers and rhinos slaughtered for body parts that are prized for their perceived medicinal value.

Along with habitat destruction, illegal trade is the biggest threat to the survival of endangered species. The legal trade needs to be monitored too. Most animals and plants can be traded legally – but overexploitation could put their survival at risk.

The first ever international agreement to control the trade in endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) came into force in 1975. Today it regulates trade of 30,000 different endangered plant and animal species across 175 countries.

Conservation organizations such as the WWF have been working for years to stop the illegal wildlife trade. Perhaps the biggest success to date has been the trade in crocodile skins. When CITES entered into force, trade in wild crocodiles for their skins was rampant and many species were becoming endangered. Now the vast bulk of the trade comes from farmed crocodiles.  It is possible to eliminate the illegal trade of ivory as well.

Current market prices for ivory in China range from $1,000 – $7,000 a kilogram, depending on the quality. African tusks are bigger and fetch more money than the Asian tusks. However, research has shown that money accrued from the long life of an African elephant in tourist dollars is a lot more than a one-off sale of ivory. Moreover, it benefits more people from airlines to tour operators, tour guides and local communities.

Poaching is a crime and its driving species to extinction. Politicians should support the anti-poaching efforts of UWA and should not be the ones defending suspected poachers just because they are voters. The Wildlife Act should be strengthened with penalties that are harsh enough to deter poachers. Since poachers have gone hi-tech with helicopters, night vision equipment, guns and silencers to quietly kill the animals at night, law enforcement patrols too should be supported to be hi-tech. Or else they will be outsmarted and outgunned.

(This piece, by Agnes Asiimwe, was published in The New Vision newspaper of October 18, 2012)

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