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ivory wars

On her trip to the Mara with Niki, S met Chinese conservationist Zhuo Qiang, who recently hosted NBA star Yao Ming on his visit to Kenya. The two men have become united by their eagerness to show the world – particularly the Asian world – the devastation poaching has wreaked on dwindling populations of elephants and rhinos all over the African continent. Zhuo, who now goes by Simba (the Swahili word for lion), is an even-tempered man who left behind his government job, wife, and 8-year old daughter to dedicate himself to animal conservation. He has worked at 20 wildlife reserves in 12 countries throughout Africa over the course of 6 years before settling in the Maasai Mara to start his own conservation project.

Simba’s enthusiasm for the animals that make this continent so exceptional stood in marked contrast to the ambivalence displayed by a large group of his compatriots we met while on safari with D’s parents. We were staying at Lewa, a private conservancy dedicated to rhino preservation, but they seemed to be more interested in getting massages than going on game drives. Even so, it was good to see Chinese tourists on safari. We’d like to believe that encountering elephants and rhinos in the wild and seeing their majestic beauty up close will make someone think twice about purchasing rhino horn powder or elephant ivory trinkets.

As Jeffrey Gettleman details in his excellent exposé, a poaching frenzy has engulfed the continent, decimating elephant and rhino populations at a rate not seen in decades, exceeding even the slaughter that led the international community to ban the ivory trade in 1989. China fuels much of the demand, driving the prices of rhino horn and elephant ivory so high that poaching has become militarized, fostering organized crime and supporting failed states and terrorist groups across the continent. Gettleman’s article is really worth a read, both for the way he connects the disparate strands that together reveal the shocking extent of the poaching epidemic and for the figures that he cites. For example, he notes that 2011 broke the record for the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide: 38.8 tons, equaling the tusks from more than 4,000 slaughtered elephants.

While adult elephants are killed for their tusks, young elephants, with no ivory to offer the poachers, are often left untouched. Left on their own, baby elephants have no chance at survival. Without their mother’s milk and the protection of adult elephants, they either die of starvation or become easy prey. Fortunately, there are some excellent organizations that rescue orphaned elephants. In Kenya, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust airlifts orphaned baby elephants to its nursery in Nairobi, nurtures them back to health, and reintegrates them into the wild in Tsavo National Park. Last year, we adopted Ishanga as a birthday gift for S’s sister. This year, we’ve renewed our commitment by adopting Barsilinga for S’s dad. You can watch a video of his rescue here and see why we’ve nicknamed him Dumbo.

We may be powerless to stop the poaching epidemic, but we can at least do something to help some of its victims. If you’re interested in adopting an elephant of your own, it’s easy to do so online. Just click here, and for as little as $50 you can help save the next generation of these great creatures.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. This issue just breaks my heart. Every time I walk by a shop window here in China that features a carved ivory tusk I feel sick to my stomach. But the general population here is pretty ambivalent to what’s going on around them and don’t have much concern for others. I guess when you are constantly surrounded by millions of other people you learn to keep your blinders on just to get through your day. The taxis have been playing commercials by Jackie Chan trying to protect the tigers, but the people taking taxis probably aren’t the ones buying animal parts for TCM concoctions. Hopefully the country’s leadership will start to play a bigger role in educating the public on this critical issue. In the meantime, we all must do what we can. Thanks for posting this.

    September 16, 2012
    • It sounds like a very touchy issue in China. The ESTH officers must be kept busy. If you’re interested, check out WildAid China. From what we hear, they’re doing great PR work in China that seems to be well accepted.

      September 28, 2012
  2. Well that baby elephant is just the cutest thing ever.

    February 19, 2013
  3. As a rabid animal lover this makes me sick. i can’t believe that in today’s world, there are still people who would have a desire for mere trinkets that cause such devastation and probably extinction of such beautiful, unique creatures. Thank you for bringing it up as an issue. Every bit helps. I have to believe that. If you have any information on how to volunteer at an elephant refuge I would love it. I have looked on line briefly and didn’t find a lot of information. Great blog …. I love it.

    March 14, 2013
    • It is, as you, sickeningly sad that the demand for ivory in Asia seems to know no bounds. Some of it might be a lack of awareness – many of the people who desire ivory trinkets and rhino horn powders likely have never set eyes on an elephant or rhino and don’t equate their desire for trinkets with the brutal massacre of these beautiful creatures. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to believe – plenty of people eat meat from animals raised and slaughtered in despicable conditions, and hardly anyone does anything about our insatiable desire for fossil fuels, even though we’re almost certainly pushing the resiliency of this planet well beyond sustainability. The difference is of course that elephant and rhino poaching has become heavily militarized and the proceeds from ivory smuggling have begun to rival those from drug smuggling as a source of income for militia groups. We don’t know about volunteering, but organizations that are trying to protect these animals certainly need all the support they can get. Save the Elephants does excellent work worldwide, and there are similar organizations to the David Sheldrick Trust in other African countries. If you can’t find an opportunity to donate time, we encourage you to donate directly to these organizations – as you say, every little bit does help.

      March 14, 2013

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