Friday, February 15, 2013

Of Elephants and Bison

There are many wildlife encounter experiences that I have recounted of my time spent in forests, lakes, rivers, and savannahs over the last twenty or so years of professional and recreational wanderings. One story, in particular, has come to mind recently. I was fortunate to have been assigned to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania as a young twenty-something Peace Corps Volunteer with a freshly-minted degree in wildlife management. I was living my dream of becoming Marlin Perkins from the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom program. In fact, in this particular story I was cruising along with a fellow ex-patriot in a late 1960’s vintage open top Land Rover maybe even as Marlin might have done. I’m not sure where we were off to on this particular day, but we were putt-putting along on a dirt track through the plains with scattered acacia woodland patches. I never knew it was possible for an elephant to sneak up on anything, but we were unaware of the presence of a small herd in the trees ahead of us to the left until a cow elephant with ears flapping and trumpet blaring was taking the angle to cut us off on the track. It being an old Land Rover, was not as responsive to wishes of acceleration as you might want in a situation like this. I’m pretty sure the impact between a charging elephant and an open-topped Land Rover would favor the elephant. It was something we did not have the misfortune of learning about as we managed to get enough speed to pass the point of intersection between our paths. As the cow pulled on to the track behind us and stopped to admonish us further, we finally felt safe enough to stop and look back at the situation we had just avoided. The adrenaline was still pumping as we high-fived each other for having so narrowly escaped a spectacular death in the bush. Apparently this was disrespectful to the cow and she resumed her chase down the track. We quickly sat down and made sure we put much more distance between us before we stopped again. Once we did stop, we were able to see that the likely reason for the charging elephant escort was the presence of a few calves among the small herd. I had many other more benign encounters with elephants during my time in East Africa, but a presumably near-death experience gave me a much humbler perspective on my place in the ecosystem.

Elephants assuming their post-chase defensive posture. Serengeti National Park,1992. 
Photo by the author.

With stories like this so freshly in my mind even after 20 years, I've been hit hard lately by disturbing reports and images coming from East Africa showing the resumption of the brutal slaughter of elephants for the sole purpose of supplying a market demand for trinkets made of ivory tusks. My daily work is now far from the Serengeti and now revolves around trying to understand the complex dynamics between these kinds of market forces and natural assets like forests and rivers. Mostly I'm interested in how we can use forests in a way that supplies our paper and building needs while protecting other values we get from forests like carbon storage and the provision of clean water. Though the destruction of forests globally is still an unwieldy problem with many dire consequences for communities, wildlife, water, and the climate – I am optimistic that we can actually harness market forces to ensure forest values aren't compromised. For example, consumers can choose products that are third-party certified to meet certain environmental and social standards and high-profile advocacy and public relations campaigns have proven successful in driving major behavior change in the companies carrying out the most destructive practices.

As challenging as forest conservation may be, I can at least visualize many pathways for solutions and can see a role for myself in the choices I make on a daily basis. But how can an individual have any hope to intervene in a supply chain that now includes highly-organized and well-armed groups tied to some of the world’s major violent conflicts? In fact, trade in ivory is now considered a “conflict resource”, like diamonds, in that profits are being used to fund military actions. The most maddening part of it all for me is that the demand stems from China and other parts of Asia where the ivory is destined only to become some kind of ornamental trinket. I might be almost sympathetic if the poaching was for meat that was critical to keep a community from the brink of starvation. But as it is, I feel angry and disillusioned that 21st century society tacitly accepts this trade in tusks for trinkets.

It seems once again a species is being pushed to the brink of extinction for the sake of the simple human desire for pretty things. History is full of examples. In 1886, a young taxidermist named William Temple Hornaday ironically set out on a collecting trip to the Montana territory in search of good bison specimens for the National Musuem[1]. Based on his prior efforts to procure skins through communications with western outposts, he became increasingly concerned that he may be too late to find any at all! Since after the American Civil War, American bison felt the brunt of new killing and transportation technology that facilitated the collection of unfathomable tons of hides to be used for robes and rugs. Early on, much of the meat was consumed as well, but eventually only the skins were taken. Hornaday speculated there were as many as 15 million bison in the west in 1867, and some estimates put the pre-settlement numbers somewhere between 30 and 60 million. By the time Hornaday returned from Montana in 1886, he figured the bison would be gone within ten years. He was wrong, it was closer to five. Hornaday, now a relatively-forgotten character of history, became a driving force to bring awareness to the bison’s impending demise and to collect the remaining wild-roaming bison into captivity with a plan that would restore a population to something that would only be a shadow of what it once was (but at least kept them in existence). Later, William T. Hornaday’s publication of Our Vanishing Wild Life in 1913 would become a call to action to stop the similarly epic slaughter of birds for ornamental hats and clothing that were en vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. This call to action was heard by another young man, Aldo Leopold, as he lay in bed recovering from illness.

A call to action is desperately needed, but I’m not sure who will be the modern-day Hornaday in this elephant extinction tragedy. Or even if there is someone or some group that can act quickly enough. There were certainly many prominent voices in East Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s that were able to marshal the use military power and tactics to fight poachers on the supply side. But even then, the bold work of Richard Leakey and Iain Douglas-Hamilton wasn't getting at the root cause of the ivory trade. International treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have not been effective in prohibiting the movement of ivory from countries where elephants still exist to the markets. There are many reasons for this, but adding to the ineffectiveness is the increasing demand from a rising affluent class in countries like China (90% of seized ivory in Kenya was destined for China). And it’s not only elephants; this economic juggernaut is driving much global environmental destruction through a hunger not unlike our 19th century North American ancestors.  

I can’t go to the grocery store and demand elephant-safe coffee or go to Home Depot and request that my lumber doesn't come from endangered acacia woodlands, so what can I do? I am fully aware that I am among a relative few who have ever seen an elephant in the wild. I am also aware of how often elephants appear as characters or representatives of the letter “E” in my two-year old’s books. Odds are she will grow up in a world where those books, and zoos, are the only places where elephants exist. I know she is perhaps unique among her age class in that she has already seen an African elephant in a zoo and knows that “tembo” is their name in KiSwahili. But as I strive in my work to help lay the scientific foundation for a green economy, one where human well-being is improved without exposing future generations to signi´Čücant environmental risks and ecological disasters, I struggle to articulate the significance of elephants to people untouched by their presence. Sure, I could talk about the important role of elephants in savannah and woodland ecosystems – but the truth is that the elephant’s extinction will only be a blip in the global count of species. Personally, I have no problem talking about the value to me of just knowing that elephants exist in the wild and have the hope of someday showing one to my daughter. But this bleeding heart view of the world will not stop someone in a Beijing shop from paying ridiculous amounts of money for a figurine carved from ivory. 

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. 1992. Photo by the author.
I continue to hear calls for increased funding for protection of elephants where they live, but enforcement is merely a small part of the solution. The international community must put pressure on the nations that are driving the demand for trade in ivory. As individuals, we must pay attention to the news reports of elephant slaughter and not ignore it. And believe it or not, communicate with our representatives in Washington as the conflicts funded by this trade have enormous global security implications. As Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton said last year to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “if the buying stops, the killing can too”. Hornaday was too late to stop the killing of bison, but was able to ensure that some of that historic herd roams free in the 21st Century. Today’s Hornaday also has some powerful economic and political forces to counter to stop the buying. So, here is my humble call to action to stop the buying and protect a creature that is capable of instilling a sense of mortality in a 23 year old young man. To lose the African elephant is more than an ecological disaster; it is a fundamental failure of humanity.

[1] Perhaps more tragic than ironic, in 2013 John Youngberg, vice president for government affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, said that because wild bison were exterminated by the time Montana became a state in 1889, landowners have the right to live without them. “They got their property with the expectation that there were no buffalo,” he said. “And these are not white-tailed deer you’re talking about, they’re 2,000-pound animals.” Source: (

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