The recent announcement that Tanzania had lost 60% of its elephants in just five years as well as Zimbabwe’s continued disregard of international opinion on the capture and removal of baby elephants from their herds has vindicated the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) decision to impose a year-long ban on the importation of elephant trophies from the two countries, based on their poor conservation records and failure to control rampant poaching of elephants. The ban was imposed last year, on April 4 as part of the Obama Administration’s National Strategy of Combatting Wildlife Trafficking.
In March this year that ban was extended indefinitely for Zimbabwe, while Tanzania is still under review.
Safari Club International (SCI), a company that promotes hunting as conservation, objected strongly in the immediate wake of the 2014 ban, saying that the embargo on importing elephant trophies “relied solely on anecdotal evidence to make a rash decision with no basis in law, science, or conservation policy”.
In a letter to the USFWS director, three days after the announcement of the ban, SCI’s Craig Kaufmann wrote: “International hunters are the first line of defence for conservation, management, and antipoaching throughout Africa.”
However, the USFWS noted that Zimbabwe and Tanzania showed “a significant decline in the elephant population” to the point that elephants were “under siege”. The announcement concluded that sport hunting of elephants in Zimbabwe and Tanzania “is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species”.
At the same time Zimbabwe is facing a similar collapse in its elephant numbers, specifically in the northern sector of the country where figures have revealed collapses between 40% and 75%. The southern African nation is also facing an international backlash for its role in snatching dozens of wild baby elephants from their mothers in its premier game park, Hwange, and attempting to sell them off to Chinese zoos and circuses.
This brings into question the knee-jerk reaction by the SCI and its continued litigation and lobbying in Washington to overturn the ban. Steve Smith, writing for The Dodo, commented: “SCI has been operating with impunity in both of those countries for years, and despite its claims that hunting reduces poaching, the killing continues unabated”.
This effectively means that, instead of acknowledging that Tanzanian and Zimbabwean elephants are in dire straits, the SCI still interprets the ban as a direct attack on its self-obsessed interests. As Smith states, the SCI is “upset that there are rules to the playground and someone is finally attempting to enforce them”.
But it’s not only the hunting lobby that fails to acknowledge their shortcomings. Large conservation organisations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who campaign to save elephants from extinction, seem to be as ineffectual in combating the devastation.
Not once during the past year has there been a single press release or media statement criticizing the Tanzanian governments failure to halt the poaching epidemic, until after the public announcement by Tanzania’s minister of Natural Resources and Tourism about the devastating loss. Worse, in its belated first public announcement on the devastation, WCS then “greatly commended” the Tanzanian government for taking “some positive steps”.
But what positive steps?
Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino programme co-ordinator for TRAFFIC, an international organisation that monitors the trade of wild animals and plants, says “you don’t get losses on this scale unless corruption and government complicity of some dimension is at play”.
Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental watchdog group, says there is widespread corruption and official collusion with Chinese-led transnational criminal gangs in Tanzania. Speaking to National Geographic last week she said the recent figures were “not a surprise to anyone who’s been looking at, investigating and documenting what’s been going on in Tanzania over the past decade. There have been repeated reports and exposés from international NGOs and journalists, but also from within Tanzania. Tanzanian journalists raised the alarm in 2009. So it’s not a new story.”
In light of this flagrant corruption, the USA, as directed by Obama’s Strategy Plan, were supposed “to identify corrupt foreign officials, entities, or individuals who work with wildlife traffickers, and target their assets for forfeiture and repatriation to affected governments as appropriate”. However, to date no moves have been made against any Tanzanian governmental entities or individuals who have been implicated in obvious transgression of wildlife laws.
In Zimbabwe the situation is almost as bad. Apart from attempting to sell off live baby elephants, Zimbabwe has seen its elephant population in the Zambezi River Valley, which includes Mana Pools, decline by more than 40% over the past 13 years and preliminary results for 2014 show a staggeringly sharp decline of 75% in the combined Matusadona and Chizarira areas.
The lone light in favour of saving the elephants appears to be the USFWS. It recognises that the USA ranks among the highest in the consumption of wildlife and wildlife products, both legal and illegal. Apart from the trophy ban, the body has begun tightening domestic regulations around the trade in wildlife, and elevated awareness of the plight of elephants, rhinos and other highly trafficked species in an effort to curtail demand.
In November 2013, in Denver, the USFWS publicly destroyed six tons of ivory taken in law-enforcement raids and seizures over the past 20 years to send a global message that ivory must be rendered valueless as a commodity and the trade in elephant ivory crushed. On June 19, 2015 another ton of confiscated ivory was publicly crushed in one of New York’s most iconic venues, Times Square.
It is small comfort that at least there are some organisations concerned about the plight of Africa’s wildlife, even though they operate half a world away.