We treat one elephant culled as a tragedy, 20,000 poached as a statistic


Adam Vaughan, The Telegraph

Date Published

Do we only care about “charismatic megafauna” being killed if the animal in question has a name or is the biggest of its kind?

You’d be forgiven for thinking so, looking at the outrage over the shooting of Cecil the lion and the death last week of what is believed to be one of Africa’s largest elephants, as revealed today. Both were killed in Zimbabwe, by trophy hunters. Both have generated a huge amount of media coverage.
But directing our anger at a single German national in the case of the elephant or a Minnesotan dentist in the case of Cecil is to miss the big picture – and that’s the widespread, illegal slaughter of our wildlife at industrial levels unseen for decades.
Today we’re up in arms about one elephant, albeit a majestic one with huge tusks that weighed a reported 120lb combined.
But did you know that forty elephants died in Zimbabwe over the past fortnight? The beasts were killed in a national park, by poachers who used cyanide to poison them and take their ivory. The news made a few tiny ripples. But there are no petitions, no newspaper editorials, no US talk show hosts taking to the air in tears.
It was another mass killer, Joseph Stalin, who reportedly said “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. When it comes to the loss of our wildlife, we really do seem unable to see the wood for the trees.
The scale of the illegal wildlife trade is staggering.
Last year, about 20,000 African elephants were killed by poachers. That’s despite a major wildlife summit in London last year, where 46 nations committed to tackling the problem and William Hague hailed a turning point against the trade. Conservationists compare the scale of the elephant killing to that seen in the years running up to the international ban on the ivory trade in 1989.
In South Africa, more than 1,200 rhinos were killed last year. This year is on track for a similar number. In 2007 just 13 died at the hands of poachers.
Lions, which are doing comparatively well, are being hunted to the verge of extinction in some parts of Africa, with just hundreds left in the wild in the western and central parts of the continent.
So where are the front pages, the outraged editorials and the leadership from politicians? Where is the modern equivalent of the Daily Mirror turning over its front page in 1961 to the slaughter of rhino?
The problem is too big for us to understand, and too complicated to relay, it seems.
It’s not always straightforward to point the finger of blame, for starters. The poachers are often killing out of poverty and desperation. One convicted Kenyan poacher who used a spear to kill 70 elephants and cut off their tusks with an axe to sell for £80 a kilo, said he did it because it was “just business.”
The demand is not local but comes from south-east Asia, where an increasingly affluent middle class buys ivory that has been carved into trinkets and ornaments, and millionaires quaff ground-down rhino horn in wine as a status symbol. Occasionally, as with the case of a Chinese “ivory queen” who was recently charged with smuggling 706 elephant tusks, someone in the long supply chain is caught.
But real change – tackling both the demand in Asia and the protection of animals in Africa – requires sustained and widespread public pressure, of the sort that has put climate change at the top of the world’s agenda. Without that pressure and that mandate, governments will never take the issue seriously.
The death of a single elephant or lion is sad. But the widespread killing and potential extinction of the world’s last remaining great animals is the tragedy.