African Elephants Could Be Wiped Out By 2020

An African elephant in the Mbeli River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
An African elephant in the Mbeli River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A longtime ranger and conservationist dropped a bombshell yesterday–African elephants are in mortal danger of being completely exterminated within six years. Rory Young, a longtime ranger and conservationist in Africa, spoke with Huffington Post via Skype and said that African elephants are being systematically mowed down by poachers who want their ivory tusks. Unless the rate of poaching is reduced, and soon, Young thinks that African elephants could be completely extinct as early as 2020.

Young knows what he’s talking about. He has been on the front lines in the fight against poaching for almost two decades. He is one of the cofounders and the current chairman of Chengta Wildlife, an organization that trains local authorities on how to combat poachers. However, Young says that he and his colleagues are swimming upstream against “a tidal wave of destruction flooding across the continent.” The result of that destruction is nothing less than catastrophic. As of December 2013, there are anywhere from 410,000 to 650,000 elephants left in Africa–less than half of the total from just 35 years ago. Back in 2008, conservationists warned that African elephants could be extinct by 2020. Young is “absolutely convinced” that if the massacre continues at current levels, that prediction could come true.

I wondered how this could possibly be happening. After all, as a kid, I remembered seeing commercials and reading articles about the high cost of ivory, and the importation and sale of ivory is banned in much of the world. Well, in Asia, ivory is a luxury item, and the ivory trade is still very big business. Many stores in China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam sell ivory chopsticks, pendants, trinkets, hairpins and ornaments. Additionally, ivory is used in traditional Chinese medicine. To combat this, Young’s team at Chengta has put together an infographic in English and Chinese to inform people of the true cost of ivory.

The wildlife protection teams Chengta trains are up against poachers who use ghastly methods to get their prey. They sometimes arm themselves with machine guns, but some go as far as to poison watering holes. Last year, for instance, a troupe of poachers dumped cyanide in a watering hole at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and killed 300 elephants. Many people who buy ivory don’t know that some poachers are not above hacking off stricken elephants’ tusks with axes while they’re still alive.

While poachers are rampant across the continent, they’re a particular problem in poorer countries and areas where armed conflict is underway. An incident that happened last year in the Central African Republic is a particularly ghastly example. That country has long been one of the poorest in the world, and has not really had a functioning government since a rebel group overthrew President Fran?ois Boziz? in March 2013. Two months later, a group of Sudanese poachers posing as members of the former rebel group entered Dzanga-Noki National Park, a World Heritage Site, and killed dozens of elephants. Normally, the World Wildlife Fund would have had more staffers on hand to stop the slaughter, but the WWF had reduced its local presence to a bare minimum after rebels pillaged WWF offices.

Young says that if elephants are wiped out, it could cause a ripple effect across the entire ecosystem since elephants are a “keystone species”–a species whose effect on the environment is well beyond its numbers. How’s that, you ask?? According to Field Trip Earth, without elephants to clear away tree and shrub spouts, grasslands can turn into forests and thickets. Without grass, antelopes die off, and their predators disappear as well. And without forest elephants to spread seeds, many critical forest plants can’t survive.

It’s a domino effect that can still be avoided, though. According to Young, it’s going to take “a whole movement all around us” to stop the slaughter. He thinks governments in Africa need to not only devote more efforts to fighting poachers on the ground, but there needs to be greater awareness of what ivory truly costs. Young is particularly pleased that Jackie Chan has spoken out against traditional Chinese medicine because of the brutal methods used to get the ingredients. It’ll take a lot more of that to save Africa’s elephants.

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Darrell Lucus.jpg Darrell Lucus is a radical-lefty Jesus-lover who has been blogging for change for a decade. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.