The future of elephants hangs in the balance this week, as world leaders seek to quell, or at least stem the tide of, the ivory market. The east's (particularly China) insatiable desire for ivory has single-handedly made poaching and related activities more profitable than it has ever been.
It is easy to see why the market for ivory is a highly lucrative business for poachers when tusks from a single bull elephant might fetch over $100,000.
In reality, the majority of elephant tusks taken these days weigh much less, although a single elephant kill will often bring in up to $40,000 for the hunter. In fact, if elephants aren't wiped out completely by poaching, the not-to0-distant future may present elephants without any tusks at all.
Delving into the stats, it appears the evolutionary path of these beasts has taken an unlikely turn as poaching's relentless and brutal onslaught has actually reduced the average size of tusk, as the larger elephants with longer tusks attract more attention. As one conservationist sarcastically observed, it brings a tiny morsel of comfort that elephant tusks may become so small over time that the profits no longer outweigh the risk involved in getting hold of them.
There is another strand to the poaching pandemic, and it's not related to the ivory trade. The decimation of flora and fauna is all part of the same issue which confronts many African countries. Conservationists are not only fighting against the trade in ivory, but the very fabric of society which some countries are developing as they seek to rise out of poverty.
Late in 2013, I visited a forest reserve in Malawi, one of the poorest countries on the planet, to see for myself what conservation efforts looked like on the ground.
Case study of front-line conservation: Malawi
Thuma Forest Reserve covers 200 square kilometres of rugged woodland, and calls itself an 'ecosystem rehabilitation project' aiming to protect the natural flora and fauna in cooperation with local communities.
A scout cuts a lonely figure as he looks out over the reserve for evidence of illegal wood burning and poaching activity
Considering its proximity to Lake Malawi, the reserve is quite elevated and enjoys some cooler breezes which are absent from the stifling confines of the lake valley. The track up to the reserve is as rough as they get, and only a high-clearance 4x4 would get you to the reserve camp itself. In the wet season, you'd be lucky to get there at all.
The reserve not only protects wildlife against poachers, but also the illegal activity of chopping and burning wood from the forest, which people sell as charcoal for fuel, making deforestation one of Malawi's main conservation issues.
An elephant killed for its ivory (Image from www.wag-malawi.org)
Evidence of this can be seen on a grand scale out of the plane window, as tiny columns of smoke rise up from countless impromptu fires.
Run by Wildlife Action Group (WAG), the reserve holds a reasonably strong population of elephants considering its relative anonymity in the tourist trade. However, illegal killing of elephants by poachers in the reserve is starting to take its toll.
Only shortly before my visit, a large matriarch of one of the elephant families had been killed, and its face hacked to pieces for the ivory. Night vision cameras showed on the following night the remainder of the family returning to the site to mourn their loss.
Lucrative business: African Elephants
The base camp from which the reserve is managed by Field Manager Lynn Clifford and a group of scouts has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1996, although it is easy to see the enormity of the task they face in preserving this ecosystem and its natural inhabitants.
The entrance to the camp sends a powerful message to any tourists or potential benefactors who venture off the beaten track and visit the reserve. A wooden counter displays the bone remains of several once-magnificent animals which roamed the reserve. The skulls of a fully-grown elephant and several kudu spell out loud and clear what may come to pass in this area if a concerted effort is not made to preserve its wildlife.
The plight of many elephants caught by poachers makes grim storytelling. Although geographically close, Malawi is a far cry from Kenya, where elephants may have a reasonably quick death at the hands of a poacher wielding a powerful hunting rifle. Weapons are difficult to get hold of in Malawi unless you have plenty of cash, so many poachers rely on more basic but equally as brutal tactics to trap their quarry. Elephants, known to be great roamers, often follow the same paths across the landscape, and this plays into the hands of the poachers who dig giant traps for elephants to stumble into. Methods of despatch are brutal.
Behives help deter elephants from leaving the confines of the reserve
One might think that poaching is high profile enough that those responsible for the conservation of wildlife affected would be suitably 'tooled up' to have any sort of chance of making an impact against poachers. Organisations like these however are in constant need of funding even to provide enough clothing for their scouts, let alone effective weapons. On a recce out into the reserve with the scouts, I was flabbergasted to see that between 10 scouts they had only a single weapon of any kind, which was a pump-action shotgun, effective only at close range. I felt that the noise from the weapon would be of more use to dissuade poachers than in an out-and-out gun battle in the forest, especially when all the other scouts carried were sticks. Scout uniforms aren't the shiny new khaki suits worn in the privately-run game reserves of the Serengeti. They are a mishmash of second or third hand threads from the Malawian army or whatever is donated from abroad. Other than that, and a few personal belongings, the only other significant possession was a hefty sack of maize, from which they make their staple, Nsima, a stodgy porridge-like food for long, hard days out in the open.
This is indeed conservation at the coalface.
Along with anti-poaching comes elephant management. In particular, keeping elephants in the reserve and prevent them causing havoc in the farms and communities adjacent to reserves. Without a fully operational electric fence, elephants often venture out into the areas beyond, causing damage to crops which provide an essential income to those who farm them. Marauding elephants present a danger to human life, and only several months earlier a local farmer had been trampled to death by an elephant. It is, of course, generally illegal to kill elephants, but whose to say what one would do if one's livelihood was about to be stomped into the ground?
Finding funding for an electric fence to go round 200 square kilometres of reserve is no easy task, and more creative methods have to be employed keep the elephants in. This means regular hikes by the scouts to patrol the perimeter, fix existing fence and funneling elephants which have left the reserve back into it. Beehives are also installed on the perimeter, which elephants are naturally afraid of.
Poachers do not only target elephants. The trade of bush meat in Malawi is rife, and the killing of animals like kudu, bushbuck and grysbok to sell as meat is a major problem for conservationists. Many of the general population rarely eat protein as meat is expensive. It's not surprising then that there is a market for illegal bush meat. Along with the black market in bush meat, illegal wood cutting and burning is turning Malawi's landscape barren. Designated areas for more sustainable wood cutting have been issued, however Thuma still suffers from illegal incursions into the reserve and scouts will spend a good deal of their time watching the landscape for smoke twisting into the sky from people making charcoal to sell. Whilst scouts are empowered to arrest people for this activity, the fines sanctioned are fairly small, and can be quickly be recouped by the culprit through a couple of sales.
Thuma Forest Reserve covers 200 square km, and is patrolled by just a handful of unarmed scouts
WAG's work is highly commendable, although the brutal reality is that they face a continual uphill struggle as both the ivory and bush meat trades grow. One final incident in particular demonstrated the difficulties of running this reserve with so few resources. One incident in particular demonstrated the difficulties of running this reserve with such skeletal resources.
My departure back to civilisation was to coincide with the pickup of several VIPs and potential investors who wanted to see first-hand the operation, following ultimatums from local officials to fence the entire reserve at a cost of many thousands of euros. My departure was delayed though, because a family of elephants had wondered out of the reserve and into neighboring farmland. This spelt disaster as far as the new visitors were concerned, as one look at a herd of elephants running riot through peoples' crops would indicate that the reserve was not being managed effectively. And with an ultimatum for fencing reaching maturity, presenting an organised and effective guise was critical.
Ceasing the initiative, Lynn radio'd the lead scout who was somewhere out in the reserve and barked a few orders, we then hopped into the jeep and left. Before reaching the exit to the reserve, the truck stopped and in piled six scouts who were dropped off again a couple of miles down the track with orders to find the elephants, round them up and 'persuade' them back into the reserve within the next hour before anyone became the wiser.
As I said my farewells at Salima petrol station, I looked back over my shoulder into the wooded hills of Thuma, wondering whether the elephants would be kept from harm this day, or the next.
All these issues are commonplace in Africa's poorest nations. Whether it's the decline of elephants or the disappearance of West African Lions, the combination of human development and encroachment is having a major impact on many species.
Thuma Forest Reserve