How to save the African elephant


Johan Begenas, Politico 

Date Published


For the past two weeks, leaders from around the world have gathered in South Africa for a global wildlife summit to debate regulations on the trade of endangered plants and animals. This triennial event, which concludes Wednesday, led to new protections for such species as the pangolin and sharks. But some countries are disappointed that one endangered animal did not receive new, desperately needed protections: the elephant.

The controversy comes amid the worst elephant-population decline in decades. In just seven years, 144,000 of Africa’s savanna elephants—almost one-third of the remaining population—were killed for their ivory. Today, only 350,000 roam the African plains.

This rapid decline in the African elephant population has been concurrent with an unprecedented effort to stop their slaughter. Indeed, in recent years, the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries mounted major new initiatives to try to build capacity in African countries to protect these animals. Despite these efforts, the decline in the elephant population has continued.

Halting the ongoing slaughter of elephants is not simply a matter of saving the iconic animal. It is necessary for the economic welfare and national security of countries across Africa and around the world. It’s time the international community takes much-needed action to stop poachers and lock up gangs involved in killing both elephants and those protecting them.

I have seen firsthand how the resources provided by the international community are not aligned with the scope and scale of the poaching challenge. In my years working to protect wildlife in Kenya, I have gotten to know courageous rangers and their difficult work. Despite the investments that have been made, it will still take many years to train and equip rangers to manage the sophisticated threat they now face. Today, transnational, increasingly militarized criminals are implicated in poaching and wildlife trafficking. In many cases, these crooks have more weapons and are better financed than protectors, and they are cunning at evading the law.

I have also seen struggling high-tech projects—from camera traps to drones—that are often well-intentioned but not in sync with the low-tech conditions on the ground. While these types of projects grab mainstream attention, advanced technologies are rarely incorporated into the day-to-day work of rangers. Meanwhile, rangers face ever more serious, even lethal, threats. Corruption in many of Africa’s wildlife parks is also rampant, sucking precious resources devoted to the problem.

At the current rate—one elephant killed every 15 minutes—elephants could disappear from the African savannas in 10 years. Dramatic action is now necessary if the world is going to stop the extinction of elephants. Simply providing more money or technology to overwhelmed rangers will not work. Instead, the United Nations Security Council should take the unprecedented step of authorizing the establishment of a protection force to safeguard these animals. And there is already a model for taking bold action to protect the unprotected.

In 2005, the U.N.’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity received unanimous consent. One of its central tenets holds that when a country has proven unable or unwilling to protect its population, other nations have a responsibility to step in and protect civilians in harm’s way. The U.N. Security Council has the authority to approve the use of force to achieve these objectives.

The same logic can apply to wildlife. The continued decline in the elephant populations demonstrates that some countries with substantial elephant populations are, at present, unable to effectively protect them, despite receiving support to do so. Some governments are even implicated in the poaching, making a reliance on their genuine support a fool’s errand.

U.N. forces have been used in numerous situations to further peace and security, but they have never been deployed to protect an animal such as the elephant. Many nations would understandably oppose putting their soldiers in danger for such a mission, which is why it is important to point out that the stakes are far higher than just saving elephants. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called poaching a “grave menace to sustainable peace and security,” and the U.S. National Intelligence Council has confirmed that some terrorist organizations are financing their activities through direct or indirect participation in poaching. Arecent investigation by the U.K.-based The Guardian also uncovered some of the transnational criminal ringleaders filling their pockets from the $23 billion illicit wildlife trade. And a 2013 U.S. intelligence analysis pointed to convergence between wildlife trafficking networks and other illicit actors such as drug and arms smugglers. Protecting wildlife must be a security priority.

The loss of elephants is also a serious economic risk to many African nations that rely on the popular species to drive travel and business to their countries. Some of the countries traversed by the last remaining elephants depend on tourism for 10 percent to 20 percent of their GDP. According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, Africa is one of the world’s fastest growing tourism regions, and the safari is the most common form of wildlife tourism. The extinction of elephants will ruin the vast and yet untapped economic potential of tourism in Africa and significantly challenge development in poorer parts of the world.

Attacking the supply side of this crisis is only one part of the solution, to be sure. Reducing the demand for ivory in countries like China and regions like Southeast Asia, as well as in the United States, is also a critical solution to the poaching challenge. But right now, and for the next several years, we need to put the authority of the international community between the poachers and these defenseless animals.

The time has come to go all-in to combat poaching, or face the irreversible national and natural security consequences of the senseless death of the last elephant.

Johan Bergenas is a senior associate with the Stimson Center, where he leads the Natural Security Forum.