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A Win in the Ground War Against Elephant Poachers

Monday, October 17, 2016 - 09:45


To many people on the front lines of elephant conservation, the defeat of the effort to uplist the Appendix 2 elephants was infuriating. Lee White, the head of Gabon’s National Park Agency, told the Independent that “The E.U.’s decision is a death sentence. Any legal trade will continue to drive illegal international commerce in ivory, which will result in the slaughter of both elephants and the rangers trying to protect them.”

As an alternative, the United States, which also opposed the uplisting, and ten African nations pushed a voice vote on a resolution for all cites members to close their domestic ivory markets. The Obama Administration has already effectively banned ivory sales in the United States, and China, far and away the biggest Asian market for illegal ivory, announced last year that it, too, will impose a similar ban. (So far, it has provided neither a timetable nor details.) The resolution passed unanimously. The ban is, however, nonbinding.

The Great Elephant Census counted only savanna elephants, which can be spotted from the air. It did not count the smaller, less-well-understood forest elephants that live under the dense canopy of the Congolese Basin. These are the elephants of Nouabalé-Ndoki. As logging roads have carved through their formerly impenetrable habitat, forest elephants, too, have suffered rampant poaching. A 2013 survey found that their numbers had declined sixty-two per cent between 2002 and 2011, and that as few as eighty thousand may remain. Andrea Turkalo, the world’s preëminent forest-elephant biologist, recently co-authored a paper which demonstrated that forest elephants, moreover, are among the slowest-reproducing animals on the planet. Even if poaching were to end, it would take the existing population eighty-one years to return to the population levels of the year 2000.

Samuel Wasser, a research associate professor of biology and the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, has developed a method for DNA analysis of ivory that allows him to trace a tusk to, as he puts it, “within three hundred kilometres of where that elephant was killed.” Wasser has found that more than eighty-five per cent of poached forest-elephant ivory comes from a specific region where Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, and Central African Republic meet and that, more often than not, it’s associated with “major transnational organized-crime syndicates.” This is a region that includes Nouabalé-Ndoki.

Gately, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Congo Program, professed satisfaction with the way the conference had turned out, particularly the unanimous vote in favor of a domestic ivory ban. The most useful thing, he told me, would be to shut down markets. But he also noted that the number of Nouabalé-Ndoki incidents involving exchange of gunfire had grown in the past few months. I asked him if, in his own work, what had once been largely a conservation job had become more militarized. “We certainly are experiencing more armed confrontations than we ever used to in the past,” he responded.


Read the full article in The New Yorker

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