Johannesburg – Bob Preller has spent the past 30 years watching Africa’s elephants with wonder. Now, the businessman is witnessing them vanish in his lifetime.
“These iconic creatures could be lost in little more than the next decade or two, due to a poaching bloodbath,” he warns. “We can hardly afford to allow a man-made extinction to be part of the final chapter of this story.”
Every 15 minutes, writes Preller in a new book The Silent Giants Of Southern Africa, Including the Desert Giants Of The Kaokoveld, an elephant is killed to “supply an insatiable and unsustainable demand for ivory”.
“A world without elephants is hard to comprehend but it’s a real possibility,” he writes, noting how populations of the species might have fallen below 500 000 animals.
“Against a sub-machine gun or a poacher armed with poisonous spears, these gentle giants stand ittle chance of survival.”
Like other conservationists who have sounded an alarm for South Africa’s elephant populations, Preller believes the onslaught is “almost certain” to increase rapidly “as the demise of elephant slowly takes place in central and East Africa and the poachers find it more difficult to find elephant as easy targets, purely because of the fewer numbers of elephant surviving”.
“They will seek and find greener pastures where elephant still roam… The numbers in Botswana appear to be on the increase, probably due to the many elephant crossing the borders from Zimbabwe and Angola, fleeing in search of a safer haven.”
This week, SANParks, in commemorating World Elephant Day, stated that although the country had “only experienced a few isolated incidents of elephant poaching, unlike many other African countries, it cannot afford to remain complacent”.
In a paper released this week, Ross Harvey, a senior researcher with the Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme at the SA Institute of International Affairs, notes how more than 100 000 elephants were slaughtered between 2010 and 2012 because of an explosion of demand for ivory, mostly in China.
“Population growth rates cannot satisfy demand, which portends extinction for some elephant species in vulnerable areas in the foreseeable future. Extinction in West or central Africa would place significant pressure on stocks in southern Africa, where poaching is already on the rise,” writes Harvey, in his paper Preserving the African Elephant for Future Generations.
Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have over 50 percent of the elephant population.
Harvey recommends conservation agencies plough most of their resources into two areas: immediately reducing the demand in consumer countries and improving strategies to halt poaching on the continent.
As long as syndicates can drive a wedge between African countries, poaching prevention efforts will fail.
“Conservationists should combine their efforts towards effectively reducing demand and improving their anti-poaching and anti-smuggling efforts.”
Campaigns to reduce demand in the Far East must spearhead the strategy to reverse the crisis but these are “unlikely to gain traction if unaccompanied by credible commitment to stockpile disposal”.
And “it’s feasible conjecture that once-off sales send a confusing signal to the market that international ivory trade is again legitimate, thereby stimulating demand”.
Conservationists, he argues, must unite to increase elephants’ value through payment for ecosystem services schemes, tourism and so forth. Unless this is achieved, “through careful consultation with near-park communities, competing development priorities may crowd out imperatives for elephant conservation”.
Preller agrees demand reduction campaigns must be invigorated.
“From poaching to trafficking, to consumption in endangered wildlife, every link is causing horrific suffering to individual animals and driving endangered species tragically close to extinction.”
To save elephants in the wild, “we will have to smash every link in the chain”, he writes.
“Severely underfunded wildlife programmes have been unable to afford the superior technology and equipment needed for anti-poaching efforts. Tens of thousands of elephants have been killed, and hundreds of game rangers have died trying to protect them.
“Be it a small trinket or an elaborate work of art, every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant… Education campaigners are needed to inform Chinese nationals of the horrors perpetuated against African elephants and the devastating impact the ivory trade is having on Africa’s elephant population.”