Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s “suddenly wealthy” has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an “extinction vortex,” Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it.
Another carcass has been found. On the Kuku Group Ranch, one of the sectors allotted to the once nomadic Maasai that surround Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya. Amboseli is home to some 1,200 elephants who regularly wander into the group ranches, these being part of their original, natural habitat. More than 7,000 Maasai live in scattered fenced-in compounds called bomas with their extended families and their cattle on Kuku’s 280,000 acres.
Traditionally, the Maasai coexisted with their wildlife. They rarely killed elephants, because they revered them and regarded them as almost human, as having souls like us. Neighboring tribespeople believe that elephants were once people who were turned into animals because of their vanity and given beautiful, flashy white tusks, which condemned them, in the strangely truthful logic of myth, to be forever hunted and killed in the name of human vanity. And Maasai believe when a young woman is getting married and her groom comes to get her from her village she musn’t look back or she will become an elephant. “But in the last few years, everything has changed,” a member of the tribe told me. “The need for money has changed the hearts of the Maasai.”
In 2008, post-election ethnic violence followed by the global recession halved tourism to Kenya, making the wildlife in the parks even harder to protect. Then, in 2009, one of the worst droughts in living memory hit much of the country. More than 400 elephants in Amboseli died. The Maasai lost many of their cows and are still struggling, while the price of ivory is higher than ever, so increasing numbers of them are risking the misfortune that killing an elephant could bring on their families, according to their traditional thinking, and are getting into poaching.
There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion.
There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park. Since the road crews arrived, in 2009, four of Amboseli’s magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs—a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an “extinction vortex.”
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to just Kenya. Across the continent, in their 37 range states, from Mali to South Africa, Ethiopia to Gabon, elephants are being killed, some believe, at the rate of around 100 a day, 36,500 a year. But like so many things in Africa, it is impossible to know how many elephants there really are (estimates run from 400,000 to 650,000), how many are being slaughtered for their tusks (figures range from “more than 4,000” to “as many as 60,000” a year), or how much ivory is being smuggled to Asia (over the last 10 years, an annual average of roughly 45,000 pounds has been seized in Asia or en route). But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) believes roughly 100 elephants are being killed each day, and this lines up with two of the most plausible estimates.
A Kenya Wildlife Service official and Soila Sayialel, the deputy director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, have invited me to come along as they investigate the carcass found on the Kuku Group Ranch.
Soila, a local Maasai woman in her 40s, has been working with Cynthia Moss—the revered 71-year-old American conservationist who started the project in 1972—for 25 years and wants to know if this latest victim is one of Amboseli’s elephants. A week earlier, K.W.S. rangers shot dead two poachers right outside the park who had just killed Magna, one of the big breeding bulls.
The poaching is even worse in the northern part of the country. A few weeks ago, two poachers were killed and a ranger was wounded in a firefight in Meru National Park. Al-Shabaab, the Islamist youth militia which is in league with al-Qaeda and controls most of Somalia, has been coming over the border and killing elephants in Arawale National Reserve. Ivory, like the blood diamonds of other African conflicts, is funding many rebel groups in Africa, and Kenya, K.W.S. director Julius Kipng’etich told me, “is in the unenviable position of sharing over 1,700 kilometers of border with three countries with civil wars that are awash with firearms: Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.” Nothing less than a full-scale military operation is going to stop the poaching in the north.
But Kenya’s poaching problem is nothing compared with that of some other African range states. It’s only losing a few hundred elephants a year. (Kenya has zero tolerance for poaching and banned the sale of all ivory, including its old stock, in 1989. There has also been a blanket ban on all hunting since 1977.) Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania are losing thousands. Chad, home to 15,000 elephants in 1979, has less than 400 left. Sierra Leone is down to single digits.
This April was the cruelest month in the current wave of killing. Then, in the first week of May alone, a ton of ivory was confiscated in Kenya, more than 1,300 pounds in Vietnam—from Tanzania—and a Chinese man was arrested at Entebbe airport in Uganda with 34 pieces of ivory. To top it off, a South Korean diplomat was caught trying to bring 16 tusks into Seoul. The carnage is escalating.
During the great elephanticide of the 1970s and 1980s, Africa’s elephant population was cut from an estimated 1.3 million to some 600,000, and Kenya’s elephant population went from 120,000 to 15,000. (It is now about twice that.) At the height of the slaughter, it is believed, 70,000 elephants a year were being killed continent-wide. The death toll may be half that now, but there are only half as many elephants left.
The previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s nouveaux riches, or bao fa hu (the “suddenly wealthy”), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status.
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