Voices: Botswana has its own refugee crisis — elephants


Owen Ullmann USA TODAY

Date Published

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CHOBE NATIONAL PARK, Botswana — For the past year, the news has been filled with too many heart-wrenching stories on the treacherous, and sometimes fatal, journeys that refugees make to Europe to escape war and famine at home. So I looked forward to a safari in this southern African nation sponsored by NatGeo WILD to provide a needed break from those tragic events.

Instead, another refugee crisis was unfolding here.

Only these victims are elephants.

Botswana is home to roughly a third of the world’s remaining 350,000 African elephants, including tens of thousands who have fled neighboring countries to escape poachers who want to kill them for their valuable ivory tusks. The elephants find a safe refuge in this country, which is proud of its expansive parks and preserves that protect our largest land mammal from human predators.

Elephants without Borders, an elephant advocacy group based here, recently completed a census of elephants in Africa and found their numbers have declined at an alarming rate — an unprecedented 30% over the past decade. If that precipitous drop is allowed to continue, these magnificent creatures will soon become extinct. Keep in mind that as recently as the early 1980s, there were more than 1 million African elephants.

Elephants are very smart and social, and have a live-and-let-live attitude: Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. But poachers care only about their tusks. A male elephant’s two tusks can weigh as much as 250 pounds, and at about $500 a pound wholesale on the black market, that’s more than $100,000.

Many countries have imposed a ban on ivory trade. The United States did so just this past summer. But the demand for ivory remains especially strong in Asia, particularly China, even though the Chinese government has promised to crack down on the ivory trade.

The plight of elephants really hit home after I spent time among the massive animals. They were ubiquitous during our seven-day stay in Chobe National Park. We saw them in herds or solidarity wanders, walking gracefully through the bush, resting against trees or hanging out along the bank of the Chobe River, where they wallowed in the mud or swam to the other side. Yes, amazingly, these 2- to 7-ton animals can swim. And every day from my lodge balcony I saw dozens of them gather at a water hole.

The river marks the border between Botswana and Namibia, and the elephants know not to wander too far from the river bank on the Namibia side because they have no protection from hunters.

That was not the only threat they faced. Our early October visit occurred at the end of the dry season, and the elephants were greatly stressed from a lack of water and edible plant life. An elephant spends 18 hours a day eating, and many suffer digestive pain from eating growth on coarse branches — the only food left until the rains come any day now. At night, I would hear their trumpeting wails of distress.

The Botswana government has pleaded with neighboring countries to adopt its elephant-protection policies, arguing that the tourism revenue a live elephant generates greatly exceeds the value of a dead elephant’s tusks. Some countries also sell ivory stockpiled from elephants who died of natural causes to satisfy the global demand for ivory. Yet, that has not stopped the poachers.

Michael Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, spoke with a broken heart and near-resignation about the steady decline of the African elephant population without an end in sight.

Until my visit, such plaintive talk about endangered elephants seemed abstract. But having lived among them, even so briefly, has turned me into an advocate of the cause to save them.

I will no longer consider buying anything made of ivory. Please make the same pledge.

Ullmann is USA TODAY’s editor for world news.