Poaching Taking Heavy Toll on Elephants for their 'White Gold'
Though currently not endangered, African elephants may have a bleak future due to increasing ivory prices and shrinking habitat range
Currently selling for an estimated $700 per pound in China, African elephant ivory is a valuable commodity to poachers. (Photo courtesy of www.carterswar.com)
By the time you finish this article, another African elephant will have fallen victim to a poacher. An estimated 100,000 animals have been killed in the last three years – about one every 15 minutes – with no sign of slowing down.
Ivan Carter, a 45-year-old hunter, conservationist and wildlife investigator, has seen the slaughter first-hand. He wants to help stop it.
“Some poachers are now using poison. They pour it in watering holes and wait for elephants to drink the poisoned water. Anything that drinks it will die, so there is this level of indiscriminate killing taking place,” says Carter.
“Poison is easy to conceal and when the poachers go back to look for dead elephants, they can claim they are just passing through since they aren’t carrying guns.”
Most poachers rely on .30-caliber AK-47s. They are designed for military use, not for hunting dangerous game. Carter says poachers often shoot randomly into a herd of elephants, hoping a few shots prove fatal. Many don’t.
“There’s no telling how many elephants are wounded and die days later,” says Carter. “They only reason these animals are being killed is for their ivory. Everything else is wasted.”
His new television show sheds light on the plight of Africa’s elephants and other species in peril. Called Carter’s W.A.R. (Wild Animal Response), it highlights critical conservation issues on his home continent and focuses on the illegal trade of meat and parts, as well as areas of conflict such as man-eating crocodiles and cattle-killing lions.
“The level of elephant poaching is staggering,” says Carter. “It’s actually increasing as a result of the boom in the economy in eastern Asia. Elephant ivory holds great symbolism in some parts of the world. It’s seen as a symbol of wealth and luck.”
Thanks in part to soaring ivory prices and dwindling elephant populations in some areas, poachers are entirely indiscriminate in what they kill. In recent years, ivory has been selling for around $700 per pound in China. Small-tusked bulls and cows are just as likely to be killed as the larger bulls in part, says Carter, because the smaller tusks are actually easier to smuggle.
“Poachers will kill anything that might make them some money,” he notes.
Ivan Carter, host of “Carter’s W.A.R.,” works to save an elephant from ivory poachers near Africa’s famous Kruger National Park. (Photo courtesy of www.carterswar.com)
The good news is African elephants are not endangered, at least not on a continent-wide scale. Upwards of 470,000 roam Africa. Carter says Botswana has more than 200,000 elephants. The problem, however, is poaching has been so widespread and pervasive in some regions, local populations are nearly extirpated.
There is some hope. China president Xi Jingping recently promised to ban the trade of ivory in his country. Various conservation groups also instituted a media campaign in China to shed light on the carnage taking place in Africa. That’s important, but Carter says there needs to be an effort to educate younger Chinese residents about the plight of the world’s largest land mammal, as well.
“It’s going to take a lot of government involvement to change things,” he says.
Poaching isn’t the only threat facing Africa’s elephants. Some regions have an overabundance of the large mammals and as their habitat shrinks, they spend more time searching for food and water where they aren’t welcome.
Villagers wage a constant war against elephants that invade subsistence gardens and tear down livestock fences. In many cases, they simply shoot the elephants and leave the carcasses to rot.
“It’s understandable that these people are frustrated with elephants. They just want the elephants gone,” says Carter.
That sentiment may only get worse in the immediate future. The United Nations estimates Africa’s population to more than double to 2.5 billion by 2050. It’s expected to nearly double again by 2100. As more people fill the landscape, conflicts with elephants are certain to increase.
Still, Carter is optimistic. Various efforts to protect elephants are working, at least in some regions. Conservation groups are working with rural residents to erect elephant-proof fencing and to teach them how to live with elephants.
“It takes a lot of time and teaching to change an entire culture,” he says.
What might help more than fences or even anti-poaching efforts, however, is to convince villagers elephants have value. Whether through tourism or through sport hunting, locals can make money by having elephants around. Hunting pours a large amount of money into local economies. Even photo tourism provides a big financial boost to locals.
“In some cases, elephants can bring in much more money than farming, so it makes sense that we should be promoting sport hunting and tourism where each is most practical. If the wildlife has value, then it also has a future,” says Carter. “I don’t want everyone to wait until it is too late, though. Now is the time to step on the gas.”
For more information about “Carter’s W.A.R.” episodes and air times, please visit the show page.
For more information about the topics covered within each episode, please visit the “Carter’s W.A.R.” website.