Window to Another World, Joyland Orphanage, The Philippines
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They carry semi-automatic rifles, night vision equipment, GPS navigation systems and two-way radios. They are supported by two planes and a helicopter, a hour operations room, tracker dogs, a network of paid informants and more than local scouts. The squad has a formidable reputation. Over the past four years it has caught or killed around 40 poachers.
But the challenge it faces is simply too great. The NRT lost 67 elephants to poachers in , in and about 70 in the first 10 months of , some of which were killed with ammunition stolen from a nearby British army training base. Those are just the known deaths. Ian Craig, the hunter-turned-conservationist who founded the NRT, says the real number is probably double that; and on the evidence of the time I spent with I can well believe it.
After leaving the carcass we were caught in a flash flood that left our Land Cruiser axle-deep in mud as darkness fell.
We spent five hours digging it out by torchlight, then slept in the open. The tusks were so blackened, scarred and unappealing that it is hard to imagine they could be so coveted. He claimed to have found the tusks lying by the side of a road. He would appear in court the following day, and would probably receive a paltry fine. The men of were disgusted.
They prefer to kill poachers than arrest them because they either bribe their way out of trouble or receive fines worth a fraction of the ivory they have stolen. The following morning we headed north up towards Ethiopia along a highway which had recently been resurfaced by several hundred Chinese workers. The incidence of elephant poaching had spiked while they were there. Cattle herders had reported seeing a dying elephant deep in the bush. Sure enough, we found the carcass of a mature female lying in a clearing. She, too, had been shot in the chest but escaped her assailants.
It was another sickening sight. Using an axe, local NRT scouts had chopped half her head away to remove her tusks before the poachers took them. Her severed trunk lay in the dirt nearby. Her stomach was swelling in the heat.
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She was lactating when she died, suggesting she had recently given birth. Nor did the carnage end there. The next morning, as I was leaving for Nairobi, Craig received word of yet another slain bull elephant, and of a confrontation when villagers prevented the poachers taking its tusks. In four years, he added, the NRT had lost a fifth of its elephant population.
Though the NRT had every advantage—generous western donors, a quasi-military security operation and strong community support—it still could not defeat the poachers. The most it could hope to do was contain them. However dire the crisis in the NRT, it is even worse elsewhere in Africa. Across the continent as many as 35, elephants a year, or nearly a hundred a day, are being killed. National parks—the supposed sanctuaries of these creatures—have become their graveyards.
In the early 19th century, Africa had more than 20m elephants. By the beginning of the 20th century that number had fallen to 5m, and by the late s to 1.
Officially the continent still has between , and , left, but many conservationists believe that after years of relentless slaughter the true number could be as low as , The relatively small forest elephants of western and central Africa, whose tusks are of higher quality than those of savannah elephants, have been hit hardest. The Democratic Republic of Congo DRC , which boasted nearly , elephants 30 years ago, has fewer than 20, left. The Ivory Coast, named for its abundance of elephants, has fewer than One of his parks, Minkebe on the Cameroon border, has lost 11, of its 22, elephants to Cameroonian and Congolese poachers.
Sometimes they hack off the tusks with axes while the creatures are still alive. You just want to turn your back on another carcass and another failure. As the supply of forest elephants has dwindled the poaching has moved east. Officially, Kenya has lost about a thousand elephants since , but most conservationists believe the real figure is double or treble that. The relatively unscathed herds of southern Africa are now becoming targets.
The loss of mature elephants, paricularly females, has knock-on effects. Orphans under the age of two seldom survive. Herds that have lost their leaders no longer know how to survive droughts and other threats.
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Whole ecologies suffer because elephants clear land and trails and spread the seeds of precious hardwood trees in their dung. Elephant poaching is a conservation disaster, but it is even worse than that. Most serious of all, poaching funds the enemies of law, order and good governance, destabilising entire states in the process. Man has always lusted after ivory. It is rare, sensuous, durable and can be transformed into the most intricate works of art. The Chinese have carved ivory for many millennia. You would think they were praying to it.
By the start of the 20th century both Europe and the US were importing huge quantities of ivory and converting it into everything from billiard balls cut from the very centre of the tusks to ensure they rolled straight to cutlery handles, chess pieces, bracelets, combs and musical instruments. Britain alone was importing nearly tonnes a year, and the US more than tonnes of which tonnes were used for piano keys alone—most of them manufactured in the single village of Ivoryton, Connecticut.
That was a time when conflicts were erupting between recently independent African states and Cold War arms were flooding into the continent, all of which facilitated elephanticide. As much as 1, tonnes of ivory—the product of , dead animals—was being exported from Africa each year. In the tide finally turned. Conservation groups waged emotive campaigns to save the elephant.
Britain, the US and most of Europe banned ivory imports and exports. I now call upon the people of the world to join us in Kenya by eliminating the trade in ivory once and for all. The ban worked. Markets shrank. The ivory price collapsed. The killings all but stopped, and elephant populations began to recover. But the ban contained two fatal flaws.
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It failed to say what should happen to national stockpiles of ivory that accumulate as elephants die or illegal shipments are seized. Lobby they did, and eventually they succeeded. The sale had no clear impact on the illegal ivory trade, and set a precedent. Most conservationists agree that the result was catastrophic. The sale suggested to Chinese consumers that buying ivory was alright. It allowed traders to launder poached ivory as legal ivory because Beijing failed to implement a foolproof system of certification—unscrupulous retailers routinely switch identification cards from one artefact to another.
And instead of selling the ivory to its odd licensed outlets at a price that would undercut the illegal trade, the government sold it at a much higher price over several years, thereby fuelling the black market. Surveys suggest they do not know rather than do not care about the origins of that ivory.
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Many believe it comes from elephants that died naturally, or that tusks fall out and regrow. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that elephant poaching was no longer simply a conservation matter. The poachers have also killed more than 1, rangers over the last decade, turning large tracts of African wilderness into war zones. The more sophisticated poaching gangs use motorbikes, powerful four-wheel drive vehicles, even helicopters. They carry gauge shotguns, AKs and occasionally rocket-propelled grenades, as well as night vision equipment and satellite telephones.
Others use poison planted in watermelons, pumpkins or loaves of bread.
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Poachers are now attacking whole families and herds. Most African states have negligible resources for wildlife protection. Kenya, though relatively prosperous, has just 2, rangers and 13 aircraft to cover the entire country. In most range states the penalties for poaching or possessing ivory are derisory.
Syndicates pay front-line poachers more for a pair of tusks than they could earn legally in years. Everyone else they bribe—police, prosecutors, magistrates, rangers, border guards, customs officers, shipping companies and powerful politicians. The great lesson about fighting a good fight of faith and wilderness experience is that we must face everything in the power of the Holy Spirit. Then in the power of the Holy Spirit we will move from glory to glory and in His fullness, we receive grace after grace.