Spotlight South Africa: the other side of elephants dying

Elephants drinking.What a privilege it is to work for an organization like the International Fund for Animal Welfare.  I have just returned from Chobe National Park in northern Botswana where, together with wonderful IFAW colleagues, we were checking in on our work to protect elephants. 

And what a time we had.

Chobe is situated in the heart of where four countries come together, namely Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, presenting one of the most dramatic landscapes for wildlife and, undisputedly, the most significant elephant habitat in the world. 

Close to 200, 000 elephants live in this area straddling the four countries, representing almost half of Africa’s entire elephant population. 

“Significant” is probably an understatement. 

One of the challenges we have confronted as an organization is the politics around elephant conservation, expressed in two diverse forms.  On the one hand, elephants are being killed for their ivory to furnish escalating demand in the East, notably China. 

The politics at play here is that some countries dismiss the severity of the problem and continue to promote the notion of legalizing the ivory trade.  But, as elephants continue to be killed, in some instances at alarming rates, and more and more ivory is being intercepted in illegal trade, it is difficult to support this notion. 

Last year was the worst year on record for large-scale ivory seizures.  The fact that elephants have to be killed for their ivory is unacceptable. 

Elephant populations coming under fire are mainly those in the Congo Basin, West Africa, parts of Kenya and, southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.  But, the poaching wave is spreading and many now recognize that, if we don’t act soon to protect elephants on the ground, the consequences will be dire.

Lions with their kill.And then, we have the reality of large, genetically viable elephant populations in relatively secure habitats.  Northern Botswana is a case in point and what an amazing experience it was to be in the heart of Africa’s largest elephant population. 

It was also amazing to be part of discussions, which have moved away from an outdated approach to elephant management in Botswana, focused on elephant numbers and culling, to one focused on maintaining space for elephants and thereby ensuring regional stability in numbers. 

What we saw on the ground in Botswana was sad, but reassuring. 

It was sad because we saw many elephants struggling to survive as they battled the dry conditions and an associated lack of food, with many falling victim to the struggle.  In some cases, lions were predating on young elephants that were too weak to carry on. 

However, this is part of the natural cycle in northern Botswana and the increased natural mortality is but one factor driving population stability.  This is important!

The trip was both invigorating and reassuring at the same time. 

We are on the right track.  As we continue to showcase our approach to bridging the gap between conservation and animal welfare, we are as committed as ever to (1) protecting elephants from unscrupulous poachers and ivory smugglers and (2) working to maintain viable elephant populations in secure habitats. 

Where the latter is concerned, it is not a numbers game!

--JBL

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia