A silent extinction: Elephants, rhinos and giraffes among endangered species facing fresh threat during global pandemic


Louise Boyle, The Independent

Date Published
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A global wildlife emergency is developing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Independent recently revealed the potential scale of the crisis after tourism collapsed and philanthropic donations plummeted, impacting the livelihoods of hundreds of frontline rangers and the thousands of other people who work in and around conservation.

Almost a third of conservationists fear that the pandemic will increase threats to species and habitats, including increased poaching due to reduced law enforcement presence and tourists, along with the greater reliance on hunting by vulnerable local communities, the MBZ Conservation Fund reported.

It highlights the urgency of our Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, which was launched by The Independent’s largest shareholder Evgeny Lebedev to call for an international effort to clamp down on the illegal trade of wild animals, one of the greatest threats to future biodiversity.

Reports are emerging of upticks in poaching around the world: Three, critically endangered giant ibis birds were recently poisoned in Cambodia (1-2% of the entire population); at least four tigers and six leopards have been killed since lockdown in India. In Uganda, Rafiki, the country’s rare and beloved silverback mountain gorilla, became collateral damage of hunters seeking out smaller animals.

Here, we examine some of the endangered species facing increased threats during our global health crisis.

Nine rhinos have been poached in South Africa since the lockdown, conservation group Rhino 911 reports, amid fears the numbers may be higher. Across the border, Rhino Conservation Botswana reported the killings of six rhinos.

Rhinos are susceptible to poachers for their horn, sought for ornamental value and to be ground into traditional medicines.

Half a million rhinos roamed Africa and Asia at the beginning of last century but today as few as 29,000 remain in the wild. Three species of rhino – black, Javan, and Sumatran – are critically endangered.

In Africa, the western black rhino is now extinct in the wild. The two remaining northern white rhino are kept under 24-hour guard at a Kenyan conservancy.

Cathy Dean, CEO of Save The Rhino, told The Independent that the pandemic’s full impact of poaching on rhino populations was still being assessed.

“There have been rhino poaching incidents but, apart from in Botswana, it’s been relatively quiet, likely due to the restriction of movement within and between countries, and possibly because criminal gangs have found other forms of illicit income,” Ms Dean said.

“For example, we think lockdown prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco in South Africa are responsible for a reduction in poaching as criminal gangs have found less dangerous ways to make money by brewing moonshine and smuggling tobacco.”

The crisis is mounting due to economic losses caused by the total absence of tourism in Africa this year, and a drop in philanthropic donations in the face of a looming global recession.

At just seven conservation sites in Kenya supported by Save The Rhino, the projected deficit for 2020 was more than $2million. Ms Dean said: “If these conservancies go bust and can’t afford to manage and protect their wildlife anymore, we will lose that habitat.

“It will be converted to agriculture and settled. Hundreds of thousands of acres will be lost to wildlife and that impacts conservation efforts forever.”

Conservationists are sounding the alarm for elephants. In June, a shocking mass killing of six elephants took place in one day in Ethiopia’s Mago National Park. (Ten elephants were killed across the entire east African nation in 2019).

Two elephants were reportedly electrocuted by poachers on the Champua range in the state of Odisha, India the same month.

An estimated 415,000 elephants are left in Africa with the species regarded as vulnerable due to poaching. Numbers continue to decline in parts of central Africa and East Africa. Between 2007 and 2014, an average of 55 elephants were killed each day in Africa, mainly for their high-value tusks.

Less than 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild and the species is classified as endangered. Their numbers have dropped by 50 per cent in the last three generations.

There has been positive steps to protect elephants including bolstering frontline ranger protection and strengthening laws against poaching in Africa. China’s significant step of banning the ivory trade in 2017 also led to a crash in demand.

The pandemic risks all of the gains. Dr Max Graham, founder of international conservation charity Space for Giants, told The Independent: “There is increasing illegal activity in protected areas largely in bushmeat poaching, an indicator of reduced law enforcement and eyes on the ground.

“We’re worried that the opportunity which that presents is clear to the international wildlife trafficking syndicates.

“There are still significant illegal markets for ivory in Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, often funnelling into China. To feed those markets, syndicates could well take massive advantage of the dip in security in elephant habitat in Africa, coupled with growing economic hardship in society, to increase their demand for ivory.”

The world’s most-trafficked mammal has harnessed global attention after being identified as a potential link in the spread of the coronavirus.

All eight pangolin species are banned in international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

An estimated 200,000 pangolins are taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia, according to WildAid. Poachers target pangolins for meat, a delicacy in parts of Asia, and keratin scales, an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Professor Ray Jansen, chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group recorded 97 tonnes of pangolin scales leaving Africa in 2019 but that volume has dropped to around 30 tonnes since the pandemic. The number of live pangolins intercepted by the charity has also declined: From 43 pangolins in 2019 to 12 so far this year.

He told The Independent: “Shutting down borders and the closing of cargo ports, along with the inhibition of people’s movements across borders and within countries has led to a huge reduction in the trafficking of pangolin scales and other pangolin products.”

However he doesn’t believe that poaching has declined and instead pangolin parts were being stockpiled in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Vietnam.

“When we open up and the seas are full of cargo ships again, I think we’re going to see movement of illicit pangolin products next year,” said Dr Jansen. “I think it’s going to be a lot easier to stick a few tonnes of pangolin scales in between Nike shoes.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s gone, I just think it’s waiting in the wings for global trade to go back to normal. I really hope that I’m wrong.”

Jaguars are listed as ‘near threatened’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, though their status may be elevated to “vulnerable” due to recent disturbing trends.

Around 173,000 jaguars are left in the wild today, having been wiped out from 40 percent of their historic range in Latin America and now extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador.

Some 18,000 jaguars were killed each year until 1973, when CITES intervention dramatically reduced the trade in skins. In 2010, evidence emerged that illegal trade in jaguar parts was increasing driven by demand for jewellery, meat and medicinal products. Between 2012-2018, more than 800 jaguars were killed for their parts and trafficked to China, according to a study in June.

Habitat fragmentation and increasingly rampant forest fires, set intentionally for land clearance by farmers and ranchers, are a growing threat to jaguars which are also targeted in retaliation when they come close to livestock.

Dr Esteban Payan, South America Jaguar Program Regional Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, told The Independent that there had been a spike in poaching in Colombia during Covid-19 lockdowns.

“There are typically four or five reports a year but by the start of July, we have had reports of seven jaguars killed,” he said.

Dr Payan said that poachers may feel emboldened due to the absence of NGO workers on the ground during quarantine, despite the fact around 90 per cent of National Park guards were still on patrol.

“We don’t think the killings are motivated by illegal trade but more likely disgruntled ranchers and farmers who find jaguars on their land and retaliate. There may also be more incidental encounters by people who come across jaguars while hunting during quarantine, or those visiting relatives in the countryside.”

The illegal trade in jaguar parts is an emerging trend and efforts to gain a clearer picture on the crisis have been hampered by the pandemic.

“Bolivia is a hub for trafficking where poachers will keep jaguar skulls and fangs for merchants in the illegal trade. During the pandemic, we haven’t recorded an increase in Bolivia, not because it isn’t happening but because we don’t have the eyes and ears.”

Giraffes, dubbed the “forgotten megafauna”, are suffering a silent extinction and the pandemic has brought increasing signs of trouble.

In Uganda, seven dead giraffes were found in a matter of days in Murchison National Park, according to nonprofit Uganda Conservation Foundation.

Giraffe populations declined 40 percent in the last three decades, leaving approximately 68,000 in the wild facing threats including poaching and habitat loss, according to Giraffe Conservation. Their status was increased to “vulnerable” on the Red List in 2016 and some subspecies are now considered “Critically Endangered”.

David O’Connor, president of Save Giraffes Now pointed out that conservation projects for giraffes are several decades behind other at-risk species. The discovery that there are four distinct species was made just four years ago.

Details on the numbers of giraffes that are poached can be difficult to estimate due to a patchy monitoring system.

“We know that illegal poaching is happening in some areas more than others and some species of giraffe are particularly at risk,” Dr O’Connor told The Independent.

“However there’s a lot of unknowns on the dynamics of giraffe poaching as there’s not the same monitoring network as there is for elephants across Africa, for example.”