What Does It Mean That Another Giant Elephant Has Fallen?

Photo by Carl Safina. Tim has survived two attacks (Kenya, Africa).

On Friday we celebrated World Wildlife Day. On Monday we got the news that he was dead. Satao II, one of Kenya’s last 25 big males, was one of the elephants whose enormous tusks conferred high status on him and on anyone who could kill him.

He was killed inside Tsavo national park. His ivory-seeking murderers apparently used poison arrows to avoid drawing attention by the sound of gunfire.

Unlike Satao, killed in 2014, Satao II took long enough to die that his killers never got his enormous ivory teeth. He was found dead but intact. Several poachers were arrested.

But that’s small consolation. Elephants are going extinct. Outside the parks and reserves, elephants risk death. Inside the reserves and parks, same. Farmers, herders, and especially ivory traffickers; all kill elephants.

Elephants will vanish if this killing does not end. This alarm has recently been echoed by the United Nations’ deputy secretary-general and by China’s U.N. envoy.

Before 2008, China was not a major driver in elephant poaching. Then, that changed.

International trading in ivory and other “wildlife products” is regulated through a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, pronounced SY-tees). In the 1980s CITES enacted a legal ivory quota system. It didn’t work. Elephant numbers continued plummeting because continuing to allow selling certain ivory facilitated easy laundering of any ivory.

The only thing that ever worked was a bitterly won worldwide ivory ban, first implemented in 1990. Zero allowed. Ivory prices instantly collapsed. Elephant populations slowly increased. Bans can work.

But that successful ban lasted only until 1999. That year CITES allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 metric tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time-sale.”

Then China wanted in. In 2008, CITES administrators let China buy stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — the second “one-time” sale.

“Ivory is illegal; don’t buy it” is a clear message to consumers, law enforcers, and governments. “Some ivory is illegal, but some is OK,” creates confusion that offers perfect cover for killing elephants. Africa-wide, the poaching rate grew to an estimated 30- to 40,000 elephants killed every year — an elephant every 15 minutes.

Giving China some stockpiled ivory opened floodgates to laundering illegal tusks. Immediately, poaching surged, condemning tens of thousands of elephants to death while fueling human bloodshed as poachers killed rangers and rangers killed poachers.

China, main driver of the current elephant holocaust, has in the last couple of years publicly burned about 35 tons of elephant tusks. China has announced its own ban on ivory sales to be phased in during 2017. Tanzania has arrested “Ivory Queen” Yang Fenglan, a Chinese national accused of trafficking the tusks of hundreds of elephants and fielding notorious poachers. In Namibia, China’s embassy has denounced “rotten” Chinese nationals involved in dozens of poaching and other criminal cases.

Conservationists have made much real progress. Ivory can no longer be legally sold in the U.S. (with few exceptions). A European ban, though seemingly less-comprehensive, is in the works.

If that happens, and if China’s ban is vigorously enforced and its black market vigorously disrupted, we might be nearing the turning point that elephants crucially need.

So what does it mean that another giant elephant has fallen? Are we near the end-game for elephants? Are we near the end of the poaching crisis?

And would even a total halt to ivory-trading be enough? Because CITES has taught traffickers and dealers that bans eventually ease, there remains incentive to stockpile ivory.

And, ivory is only an elephant’s most immediate problem. Longer-term the problem is room. In just the last 40 years Kenya’s human population quadrupled. Meanwhile, elephants dropped by four-fifths. Since the early ’80s, elephants have lost more than half their African range and more than half their numbers. Not one of them is safe from humans. And for the moment, ivory is the main driver of the killing.

I fear for the remaining giant-tusked survivors. I fear for them all. They are from another time, another world. They are like poor, dispossessed people with no secure land and no secure future. In India, elephants have been called “giant refugees.”

Will Africa’s surviving giant elephants get to die of natural causes?

Is there no place for them in our civilized world? If there is not, are we civilized? Maybe civilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; maybe we could do better. In a humanized world, beautiful ivory carvings would all originate from the tusks of elephants who’d died of natural causes. Big old elephants would leave larger, more valuable tusks. Ivory wouldn’t be a problem at all. It really would be beautiful.

Let’s actively and publicly support the ivory bans, support the United Nations on this issue, and commend China for rapid progress on this issue — while holding China to their word. Consider making donations to Big Life Foundation, Amboseli Elephant Trust, and Save the Elephants.

A few years ago I spent hours observing and photographing another of Kenya’s surviving huge males, whose name is simply Tim. Tim, now in his mid-50s, has been hit at least twice by spears, but wildlife veterinarians got to him in time. He survived. I never want to read that Tim has joined the list that includes Satao and, now, Satao II; elephants too successful in life, too magnificent, to simply be allowed to live. Perhaps, together, we will help turn this tide. Perhaps, one day, massive elephants will die simply of old age.

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Carl Safina is the Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and heads the not-for-profit Safina Center. Parts of this article are adapted from his most recent book, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.