With Hong Kong seizures and Tsavo poachings, are we staring at a catastrophe for elephants?

779 ivory tusks seized by Hong Kong Customs in Tsing Yi, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China on 04 January 2013. ©Alex Hofford/IFAW Last weekend, in one of the worst poaching incidents recorded in Tsavo Park’s recent history, a family of 12 elephants, one of which was a two-month-old calf, was mowed down by poachers’ bullets.

Their tusks were hacked off and the gang melted into the vast arid lands with their ill-gotten and bloodied loot.

The gang remains at large, despite Kenya Wildlife Service rangers combing the area, from air and ground, since the fallen jumbos were discovered.

This heinous killing of a matriarch and her family needn’t come as a surprise.

A day before their slaughter, about 1.3 tonnes of ivory was seized by Hong Kong customs officials.

The ivory had been shipped in a container from Kenya via Malaysia.

The container, which was declared to hold ‘archaeological stones’, is said to have had 779 cut pieces of elephant tusks hidden under rocks. The origin of the ivory is yet to be established.

Yet we are only into the second week of 2013; and we were hoping it would not get worse than last year.

Are we staring at a catastrophe?

Even with the local and international uproar and outrage over the Tsavo elephant slaughter, conservationists have been warning for years that the reported poaching scale only scratches the surface of the on goings in Africa.

According to reports, seized illegal ivory originating from the continent was nearly 40 tonnes. By end of 2012, the figures stood at over 34 tonnes even though the final tally is yet to be done.

This is only a small fraction of the ivory and other wildlife trophies detected and confiscated while being smuggled out. The organised syndicates keep adopting new approaches, using different routes and different ways to conceal the ivory.

For elephant populations, the peril has never been greater. Some experts say that the present poaching incidences are at the same level or even surpass those before 1989 – when poaching gangs wreaked havoc on thousands of jumbos and the rangers mandated to protect them.

In 2012, Kenya is said to have lost at least 360 elephants to poachers. In other words, at least one elephant was killed daily. Daily!

As the country remains gripped by a feverish general elections campaign mode — which never seems to end these days — it is disheartening to see the lack of concern or outrage by those aspirants campaigning to lead the country in the next regime.

Yet, they expect the wildlife tourism goose to keep laying the golden eggs to earn the much-needed revenue for the country. Where any statements by the Government are issued, they are swiftly overtaken by other ‘urgent’ political matters.

It doesn’t help that we Kenyans are said to have very short memories. Even when we get outraged about an issue such as the Tsavo slaughter, it is hardly sustained to levels where we can hold our leaders and policy makers accountable.

Unless action is taken now, poachers will continue to annihilate elephants and other endangered species like rhinos almost at whim while well-organised international cartels with local connections smuggle out wildlife trophies by the containers.

In the interim, there will be lots of hand-wringing and fingers will continue to be pointed at collusion, corruption, impunity, indifference, ignorance, lenient court sentences, poverty, insecurity, market demand, ad infinitum.

So the next time you visit Kenya national parks and reserves like Tsavo, Meru, Samburu, Maasai Mara, Amboseli and other areas like Laikipia that harbour elephants and you see them scurry into the bush at the sight of your vehicle, then you might consider yourself lucky, bewildered as you may be then by that reaction. At least you will have seen an elephant, even if it’s the backside.

Otherwise, as the scale of elephant poaching worsens, we will be lucky to see a gazelle or zebra ten years from now.

- EW

For more information on our efforts to end the global trade of ivory, visit our Wildlife Trade campaign page.

PHOTOS: ©Alex Hofford/IFAW

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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