Killing off Africa’s iconic animals

| July 6, 2019 | 0 Comments
In 1900, the population of white rhinos (two are pictured here) stood at an estimated 250,000. Now they number 20,000 and are officially classified as “near threatened.” Demand from China and Southeast Asia for rhino horns and elephant tusks drives poaching. (Photo: © Volodymyr Byrdyak |

In 1900, the population of white rhinos (two are pictured here) stood at an estimated 250,000. Now they number 20,000 and are officially classified as “near threatened.” Demand from China and Southeast Asia for rhino horns and elephant tusks drives poaching. (Photo: © Volodymyr Byrdyak |

Many of the iconic fauna that are indelibly associated with Africa, and that attract so many local citizens and foreign tourists alike, no longer spread limitlessly across the vast savannahs of the mid-continent. Nor are many of the larger animals of the unbroken forest often visible. This century’s massive escalation of illegal poaching has decimated the herds of elephants, the pods of rhinoceroses, the prides of lions and even the towers of giraffes that once browsed and foraged without much human interference. Even the lowly and secretive pangolin is being hunted ceaselessly to satisfy Asian demand.
Poaching is destroying today’s animals and tomorrow’s breeders. Few species numbers are increasing and, in the case of particularly valuable large mammals, poachers are killing as many as they can to meet Asia’s pulsating demand for ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales and the like. In 1930, Africa could count as many as 10 million elephants across more than 50 countries. In 2019, no more than 400,000 elephants remain, a decline (by one count) of 111,000 or more since 2006. These great losses are due almost entirely to an onslaught of poaching. The various local poaching gangs across Africa are killing about 20,000 elephants a year, stripping the carcasses of their tusks, and leaving the rest of the slaughtered beasts for vultures, hyenas and other scavengers of the savannah.
Clearly, elephants are adaptable and resilient. They travel miles for water and to graze on the rough grasses, twigs, fruit, roots, bushes and tree bark that are their main fodder. Elephants play a crucial role in Africa’s savannah ecosystems as seed dispersers. Their dung recycles valuable nutrients and, by feeding on trees, they maintain the savannah’s matrix of woodland and grassland and the biodiversity it supports. Paradoxically, when, because of human population pressure and poaching threats, elephants are confined to reserves and cannot roam freely, frequently their numbers grow to exceed the carrying capacities of their demarcated lands. And then, sometimes, they need to be re-located or culled.

Even the lowly and secretive pangolin is being hunted ceaselessly in Africa to satisfy Asian demand. (Photo: © Positive Snapshot |

Even the lowly and secretive pangolin is being hunted ceaselessly in Africa to satisfy Asian demand. (Photo: © Positive Snapshot |

If anything, rhinoceros are much more endangered than elephants. More than 1,000 are killed yearly, leaving fewer than 23,000 white and black rhinoceroses in the wild today, mostly in Botswana and Namibia, in South Africa and Mozambique, and — in fewer numbers — in Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. In 2017, South Africa alone lost 1,028 rhinos to poachers.
Black rhinoceros are critically endangered. Only slightly more than 5,000 of these massive animals remain. Large-scale poaching saw black rhino populations decline from approximately 70,000 individuals in 1970 to just 2,410 in 1995 — a dramatic decline of 96 per cent over 20 years. Fortunately, thanks to the persistent efforts of conservation programs across Africa, black rhino numbers have risen since then to a current population of approximately 5,458 individuals, and their range has increased. Black rhinos have narrow mouths and two horns, the front one from 50 to 130 centimetres (20 to 51 inches) long and the rear one about 50 centimetres (20 inches) long. Both white rhino horns are slightly smaller than their black rhino counterparts. They are well-adapted to arid and semi-arid terrain and can now be found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and southern Tanzania. They have also been reintroduced to Botswana, Malawi, eSwatini and Zambia.
White rhinoceros are larger than black, growing to 4 metres (13 feet) long and 1.8 metres (6 feet) from hoof to shoulder. White rhinos are so called because of their wider mouths (and a mistranslation from an Afrikaans word). In 1900, the white rhino population stood at an estimated 250,000. Now they number about 20,000 and are officially classified as “near threatened.” Given the scale of killings earlier in this century, even those modest numbers represent an overwhelming conservation success story and mean that the white rhinoceros has recovered from near extinction. Most live in South Africa and Namibia, with smaller numbers in Zambia. The northern white rhino has gone virtually extinct with the death of the last male in 2018.
Both the black and white rhinoceros are herbivores. The black rhino eats trees or bushes because its long lips allow it to pick leaves and fruit from up high. The white rhino has a flat-shaped snout that lets it get closer to the ground to eat grass.

In 1930, one could count as many as 10 million elephants roaming more than 50 African countries. In 2019, no more than 400,000 remain. (Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim)

In 1930, one could count as many as 10 million elephants roaming more than 50 African countries. In 2019, no more than 400,000 remain. (Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim)

Elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are wanted almost exclusively in Asia. With increasing prosperity in China and Southeast Asia — the primary world markets for elephant ivory — there has been increasing demand for what, long ago, was a commodity carved into ornaments and used for piano keys, bassoon and oboe mouthpieces and similar products of comparatively limited appeal. But, since the 1990s, primarily Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian customers have sought to purchase carved-ivory ornaments and chopsticks as displays of wealth and status, and also for use as medicinal elixirs.
Cancers can supposedly be cured and male sexual prowess allegedly enhanced by infusions of ground-up horn (actually keratin, the substance of hair and fingernails) and ivory. Powder made from rhino horn is often added to food or brewed in a tea in the belief that the horns are a powerful aphrodisiac, a hangover cure and treatment for fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders. Even though such outcomes have never been verified scientifically, many Asians still strongly believe in their health efficacy. Alas, China has not yet embarked upon a campaign to educate consumers to dispel the myths about ivory and rhino horn, or even to inform potential customers of its prosaic composition. There is no medical research that has ever found ivory or horn to be of benefit in preventing or curing diseases, nor has any aphrodisiacal impact ever been noted by researchers.
Although China banned ivory imports in 2017 and Hong Kong in 2018 and China burned piles of illicit elephant tusks, a black-market trade continues. Nowadays, some of the smuggled ivory first travels from Africa to Vietnam or Laos, and thence into China.
Asians also value the esthetics of ivory carvings, ownership of which enhances prestige and signifies wealth. China may hold as many as 100 tonnes of ivory carvings. The sizes of the Vietnamese and Malaysian hoards of carved figures are not precisely known, but they are likely to be modest fractions of the Chinese total. Yemenis, meanwhile, use rhino horn to produce traditional dagger grips.
Research done in China identifies women who live in smaller Chinese cities and possess medium-to-high incomes as the key modern purchasers of ivory. They are the supposed “die-hard” buyers of ivory products. These women are apparently attracted to ivory because it is “rare and beautiful,” carries cultural significance and makes a good gift. Ivory, sometimes referred to as “white gold,” clearly is a status symbol — a luxury product that people use to flaunt their wealth.
In Hong Kong, more than 300 traders in 2019 held licences allowing their stores to sell ivory legally. These were not backroom shops; many were situated on busy streets, open to regular street traffic. Some of the stores resembled expensive jewelry emporia, others were more haphazard in their displays. In both types of shop, the ivory on sale was hardly inexpensive.
Another researcher remarks that China’s rising middle class often parked its money in ivory. After all, “it never goes bad.” Ivory is considered a smart way to spend money because it is both an investment and something that can be shown off. Collectors also regard well-carved ivory as akin to fine art in value and enjoyment.
Ivory is worth US$2,100 per kilogram, or about $5,000 per pound, in China, and somewhat more in Vietnam and Malaysia, with rhino horn ranging from $12,000 to as much as $65,000 per kilogram in Asia. Though these prices, which, on the upper end, are higher than those for equivalent amounts of gold, platinum or cocaine, are hardly realized by the actual poachers, or even by middlemen, there is obviously room for profit-taking at the end of the long logistical queue from Africa. Local poachers in Africa usually work on consignment from African and Chinese middlemen, receiving a fraction of the overseas kilogram value of ivory and horn for their dangerous forays. Yet that fraction often represents the kinds of handsome incomes otherwise unavailable to rurally based African men and their families.
Effectively reducing the killing of African elephants and rhinoceroses thus depends more on curbing the foreign appetite for tusks and horn than on localized national endeavours to combat poachers. Although approaches from both angles are essential, it is the consumer lust for elephant ivory and rhino horn that propels illegal attacks on innocent herbivorous mammals across the savannahs and forests of southern, eastern and even western Africa. China needs to minimize demand through educational efforts or intensive regulation.
Substantial quantities of ivory destined for China and trafficked by Chinese men and women have been seized in recent years in the ports and airports of Nigeria, Togo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa. Cut-up tusks and horns have been detected in shipping crates, luggage and even hand luggage. In early 2019, a Tanzanian judge sentenced a Chinese businesswoman dubbed “the ivory queen” to 15 years in prison for attempting to smuggle out of the country 860 tusks or pieces of tusk belonging to 350 elephants and worth approximately $5.6 million. The perpetrator was head of the Chinese-Africa Business Council of Tanzania and owned a popular restaurant in Dar es Salaam. She and two African co-conspirators were also convicted of running an organized criminal gang and were each sentenced to 15-year prison terms. All three also had to pay fines amounting to double the value of the ivory, or serve an additional two years incarceration. In 2016, two Chinese men received an even stiffer sentence of 35 years in prison for attempting to smuggle ivory. In 2015, four male smugglers, also Chinese, each received 20-year sentences for attempting to ship rhino horn to China. Even earlier, three Chinese “seafood” exporters were jailed and held for more than a year after being apprehended in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main port. They were trying to leave the country with 76 elephant tusks hidden under shellfish.
South Africa discovered a number of Chinese “tourists” travelling with hidden ivory and some horn. Namibia has deported a number of middlemen — and several women — for being suspected of masterminding poaching syndicates. The suspects captured in Togo and Nigeria were relatively brazen about their illicit actions, possibly because bribing inspectors and customs officials had previously been successful. Ivory has also been intercepted in Hong Kong, en route to mainland China.
As a counter to what happens at home, China has been attempting to assist East African countries and South Africa in their pursuit of poachers. Partnering with African conservation efforts, China directs modest funding and training to wildlife ranger activities and other anti-poaching police efforts. With Chinese assistance, local control and major funding, several of these anti-poaching endeavours have been modestly successful in South Africa and Namibia, but have yielded far less encouraging results in Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Local wildlife protection operations are active in those countries, but have so far achieved only limited success because of the unremitting actions of poachers and their overseas patrons.
If elephants and rhinoceroses are not soon to become extinct, the poachers will have to be defeated on the ground. Asian governments will need to undertake a major battle to make their citizens understand that ivory and horn cannot cure their ailments magically and that killing these animals is bad for Africa.

Robert I. Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s program in intrastate conflict, president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts And Sciences. His latest book is The Corruption Cure. (Princeton, 2017)

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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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