Elephants Don’t Forget So Why Are We?

Posted on August 19, 2014

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This is me in Sri Lanka’s Kaudulla National Park in May this year. The sight of 80 wild Asia elephants literally brought tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget those few hours for as long as I live. Their sheer size and number was overwhelming. I was quite literally gobsmacked, a small feat for someone like me who is not easily impressed.

Sri Lanka’s human rights record is dubious to say the least following allegations of war crimes during the bloody civil war that ravaged the country. Ironically their attitude towards eco tourism is a high priority and a growing sector.

A British company that bills itself as “the first and largest business promoting and selling responsible and eco-travel globally,” has been launched. It aims to offer tourists a checklist of the dos and don’ts drawing on the expertise of NGOs and local guides (http://responsibletravel.com/). Among the organisations given the thumbs up is Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) project run by Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS).

But the picture of ethical and responsible tourism differs markedly across continents; as does the way wildlife laws are enforced. Poaching does not appear to be an issue in Sri Lanka, probably in part due to its geographical location which makes transiting ivory tricky; as well as Buddhist attitude of protecting elephants.

However the numbers of African elephant populations are going from bad to worse due to ivory poaching. In fact scientists are now saying we have reached a “tipping point”.

Work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says if the slaughter continues as its current rate, these animals could be wiped out in 100 years – more African elephants are being killed each year than are being born. Growing populations exist in Botswana but in Central Africa the picture is bleak – it’s fallen by 60 per cent in ten years.

Lead author George Wittemyer, from Colorado State University, said: “We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent.

“We are talking about the removal of the oldest and biggest elephants. That means removal of the primary breeding males and removal of family matriarchs and mothers. This leaves behind orphaned juveniles and broken elephant societies.”

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The illegal trade in elephant tusks has increased with a kilogram of ivory now worth thousands of dollars. Much of the demand has been driven by a rapidly growing market in Asia.

Last month the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held its annual meeting this time in Geneva. There was consensus among NGOs that time is of the essence in the battle to save African elephants but there doesn’t appear to be enough joined up thinking.

I can’t help feel frustrated that unless a more hardline stance is taken towards countries guilty of handing out lenient sentences, trading in and transiting ivory these animals will disappear and we will have stood by and watched it happen.

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