Tens of thousands of people worldwide call for action against China to halt to the massacre of wildlife heading for extinction
THERE is a sensational creature on this Earth. It discovers water sources and nurtures waterholes that allow other animals to also thrive, even in dry seasons; it enriches forests by tearing down old trees and ploughing nutrients back into the soil, giving life to all creatures great and small; spreads plant seeds, and it creates woodland clearings to let sunlight penetrate in, regenerating growth cycles. In short, this animal is pivotal to the ecosystems on which swathes of land masses depend.
Further, it is highly intelligent and sensitive, with complex and wide family bonds; it demonstrably experiences a host of emotions, from love, attachment and happiness to alarm, grief, and fear. Herd members have highly developed communications systems that remain a mystery to human beings.
This amazing creature – the elephant – even earns an income for its host countries, through binocular-toting tourists anxious to catch a glimpse of it – and to shoot it through a camera lens.
Yet humans are rapidly wiping it out.
Less than a century ago, Africa was home to more than five million elephants. Today they are under threat of extinction, and if they continue to be shot, poisoned and snared at current rates, they could disappear, conservationists calculate, within a decade.
The rate of their demise is alarming: at least 96 are killed around the world every day – that’s one about every 15 minutes – or at least 35,000 a year, although experts believe the number could be as high as 50,000 a year. It’s the highest rate of killings ever, and is nothing short of a massacre.
Elephants have strong social bonds and experience a range of emotions.
But this weekend, the world will be on the march in an effort to stamp out the trade that feeds the slaughter.
Marches are being held in 133 cities around the world, attended by ordinary people who care that the iconic species could be wiped out within their lifetimes, that today’s generation is the one that allowed this to happen. The slogan of the march is “Extinction is for ever”.
The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos will call on world leaders to take more action than ever to halt sales of ivory – which are sending elephants towards extinction – and also to put a stop to demand for rhino horn, which is similarly endangering wild populations.
Last year, an estimated 50,000 people around the world joined the march; organisers hope this year’s number will exceed that.
In Europe, 20 cities are hosting rallies; in Africa, 32. Even in Asia and the far East – the hub of demand for animal parts, 13 events will be held in cities. From North and South America to Australia and New Zealand, marchers will be calling for urgent action.
In China, a survey showed most people think tusks grow back ‘like fingernails’.
Rhinos are targeted ruthlessly for their horn, which is wrongly thought to treat various ailments
At the end of the marches, organisers will present a “memorandum of demand” letter to government leaders, calling for measures including:
- applying pressure to China to state when it will implement its stated plan to halt the ivory trade and shut down ivory-carving factories and ivory trinket shops
- calling on China to destroy its stockpiles of ivory and punish anyone found illegally dealing in ivory or rhino horn.
- reclassifying African elephants as two species – Savannah and Forest elephants, both to be listed as endangered
- cracking down on the capture and international sales of baby elephants
- halting imports and exports of elephants, rhinos and lions and their body parts and “trophies”
BBC presenter Nicky Campbell, a passionate and articulate defender of big wildlife, will be among the guest speakers in Downing Street before the letter handover. Organisers in London say there will also be a special VIP celebrity, but are keeping the name under wraps.
The big threats
The threat that rhinos face is just as great as elephants. One is killed approximately every nine hours – more than 1,000 every year – out of a global population of 29,000.
Poaching animals for their tusks or horns is believed to be the fourth-biggest international gang crimes – after the smuggling of drugs, people and guns, and is driven by huge demand from Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Philippines, but most of all China. Wealthy consumers in these countries prize useless trinkets made of ivory, and misguidedly believe crushed rhino horn has medicinal value.
Demand is so high that the price of rhino horn exceeds that of gold, diamonds, or cocaine, according to a study in Science Advances.
As poaching has grown, so has worldwide anger, but China is showing no signs of listening. In the US, embassies have reportedly refused to accept letters from protesters, marking them to be returned to sender.
They are, apparently, shielding the Chinese people from the uproar: many people seemingly are unaware that an elephant has to be killed for its tusks to be taken. One survey in China found seven in 10 respondents believed that tusks grew back like fingernails.
The price of becoming isolated is a bullet
– Dame Daphne Sheldrick
It’s not entirely about ivory and rhino horn. Habitat destruction is also responsible, as human populations grow, spread and destroy forests, leaving populations isolated within shrinking pockets of wilderness. Inevitably, this imbalance leads to clashes as hungry elephants discover human-planted crops – and help themselves. Often, these scenarios end in tragedy.
As Dame Daphne Sheldrick, an international authority on wildlife and founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust put it: “Remnant elephant communities isolated from one another and holed up in small refuge areas immediately become ‘problem animals’ every time they put a foot out, since they find themselves in conflict with human interests. The price of this is a bullet.”
The loss of beasts that bring so many benefits to other wildlife and vegetation is having severe knock-on effects on Africa’s ecology, according to Science Advances. “The rate of large herbivore decline suggests that ever-larger swaths of the world will soon lack many of the vital ecological services these animals provide, resulting in enormous ecological and social costs,” its report said.
Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya and Chad are all in the spotlight for allowing criminal poaching gangs to flourish, although last year a deal between Mozambique and Zambia to protect a vital wildlife corridor between the two countries gave conservationists one small cause for optimism.
CITES and charities
In the latter 20th century, most hopes rested on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But CITES, which meets every two years, was heavily criticised for allowing countries to have exemptions from the 1989 ban on ivory trading for stockpiles. Critics accused it of being plied by politicians and lobbyists.
Now, a host of charities are involved in tackling wildlife crime gangs, with work such as funding rangers and protection helicopters to rescuing orphaned babies. Some, such as WWF, try to link conservation with economic development so that villagers understand the benefits of keeping elephants alive.
Another point of anger is the practice of removing baby elephants from their families and exporting them – or “kidnapping” them.
This year, 24 were imported to China – arguably in breach of CITES’ regulations, which allow the trade only “to appropriate and acceptable destinations”. Photographs and videos of the 24 suggested they were being mistreated and were in ill health, National Geographic reported. One animal had large wounds on her back legs, and all showed signs of distress, according to an expert.
The marches – being held this weekend to tie in with World Animal Day on Sunday – will also call for an end to canned lion hunting, in which lions are bred in captivity specifically to be shot dead by game-hunters.
Fewer than 30,000 lions remain in the wild, say march organisers. It’s just another victim of the relentless march of humanity.
Images: Pixabay / Nuzree / Javier Abalos Alvares