An emergency meeting to deal with elephant massacres in Chad and Cameroon

Central African governments have met to collaborate and conduct an emergency plan to stop the mass elephant killings.  This is in the aftermath of the biggest episode of elephant poaching in 2013.  However, does the meeting not mark an effort that is just too little, and too late?

On the 14th and 15th of March, at least 86 elephants were slaughtered in Chad, near the Cameroon border.  This included over 30 pregnant females.  Even more sickeningly, the calves were then shot, or just left to die.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This massacre, whether incidentally or accidentally, took pace during the closing hours of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference meeting, where elephants were high up on the agenda.  This massacre occurred just weeks after 28 elephant carcasses, with all their ivory tusks removed, were discovered in the Lobeke and Nki National Parks of Cameroon.  There were also at least 15 carcasses in four different locations across the Central African Republic.  These massacres all followed a number of reports of Sudanese poachers that were crossing over CAR and heading towards Chad and Cameroon.  Both the governments of Chad and Cameroon responded to this warning, but neither could find and stop the poaching gangs.

This crisis was acknowledged and a three-day emergency meeting on the poaching of elephants was held Yaounde, Cameroon from March 21 to 23.  The Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) organized the meeting.  The meeting’s participants were made up of ministers of foreign affairs, defense and wildlife protection, it also included representatives from organizations such as the SOS Elephants and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as representatives from the United Nations Development Program.

The final declaration realised that national initiatives taken to combat illegal trafficking and poaching had failed.  It emphasized that countries involved in the ivory supply chain (whether in origin, transit, or destination) need to coordinate efforts so to stop the transnational, organized crime networks operating throughout the region.  The plan was adopted in extreme urgency to combat poaching.  It includes: the mobilization of military forces in Cameroon and Chad to support the anti-poaching brigades; the exchange of intelligence regarding the movement of the poachers; a mechanism for inter-state coordination and the initiation of national coordination units; an implementation of a tripartite agreement that allows for the intervention of multi-country brigades; and criminalizing poaching and the illegal ivory trade, so that penalties equal those of organized transnational crimes.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Internationally, penalties for wildlife crimes are known to be especially low.  For example, in Ireland on March 19, two rhino horn dealers were each fined $650 for smuggling eight rhinos.  The horns themselves were valued at $650 000 on the black market.

This CEEAC meeting plan realises and acts for the larger actions taken against elephant poaching, namely: the need for transnational, coordinated efforts, the need to treat elephant and other wildlife killing and the illegal trade in ivory and other wildlife parts as severe crimes; and a call for effective enforcement through prosecutions, harsher penalties, and advanced operational techniques to curb the illicit trade.

There is still a need in financing the implementation of the CEEAC emergency plan, as well as for longer-term actions.  A $2.3 million budget and timetable of actions were laid out, however, there is still an unclear status of financial commitments.  The final declaration of the meeting was for a call for the global community and other partners to come forward and offer money.

There is still lingering political instability in the CAR.  Very recently, rebels seized the capital and President Francois Bozize` fled the country.  This turmoil implies that poachers would be able to continue to roam the CAR with freedom and a sense of immunity.

There have been sightings of the Sudanese poachers from the air and from the ground.  The poachers seem to have broken into smaller groups of 10 to 15 members each, and are widely dispersed.  However, the exact locations and particular movements of the poachers in Cameroon and Chad are unconfirmed, and the reports do not seem to be entirely accurate.  The Chadian troops have already been pursuing poachers.  The Chadian President has deployed a many troops to hunt the poachers, and is determined to catch them before they leave Chadian territory.  There has been a violent and vehement exchange of gunfire between the regular army in Loumobogo, near the CAR, and groups of poachers.  The authorities have seized 30 tusks, and Chad is reportedly ready to declare a total war on the poachers.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Tens of thousands of elephants have become the victims to a storm of high ivory prices that are driven by a soaring Chinese demand.  The elephants are left to be even more vulnerable due to the low risk of traffickers getting caught, and menial penalties for those who are caught.  There is also a lack of priority at local and political levels to act seriously enough against elephant poaching.  Chad is encouragingly actively pursuing the poachers, however, the situation in the CAR and Cameroon remains less clear.  The bottom line remains as the Sudanese poachers still out there, and still relentlessly and ruthlessly hunting.

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants.  Today only 550 remain.  Image courtesy of www.nytstore.com

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants. Today only 550 remain. Image courtesy of http://www.nytstore.com

The world’s rarest cat: The Amur leopard

In the Russian Far East, a rare subspecies of leopard, the Amur leopard, has adapted to life in the temperate forests and mountains.  It is also known as the Far East leopard or the Korean leopard.  The Amur leopard is teetering on the brink of extinction.  The species is threatened by poaching, encroaching civilisation and habitat loss due to forest exploitation.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The Amur leopard is the rarest cat in the world.  According to WWF, there are only about 30 individuals in the world today.  As there is such a small population remaining, the loss of each leopard placing the species at a greater risk of extinction.

Amur leopards are critically endangered largely due to the illegal wildlife trade.  They are poached mainly for their remarkable spotted fur.  In 1999, an undercover investigation team found a female and male Amur leopard skin that were being sold for $500 and $1000 respectively in the village of Barabash, which was close to the Kedrovaya Pad Reserve in Russia.  Villages and agriculture surround the leopards’ natural habitat of forests.  Consequently, these forests are relatively accessible.  Amur leopards are most often killed by local Russians who live in small villages in and around the leopard habitat.  Most of the villagers hunt entirely illegally.  Poaching is therefore not only a problem for the leopards themselves, but also for important prey species, such as sika deer, roe deer and hare, as these are hunted by the villagers for cash and food.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The prey base in the forest of the Amur Leopards’ habitat is insufficient for the leopards’ survival.  Prey populations could only recover if the use of their forests by local people is controlled and regulated.  Measures must also be taken to limit the poaching and hunting of hoofed prey species.  There are still large territories of suitable habitat for the Amur leopard both in Russia and China.  However, in China particularly, this significant shortage of prey cannot support large populations of leopards and tigers.  Efforts must be made to limit the poaching of prey species, and the logging of forests must be managed more sustainably, in order to make these large traits adequately habitable for the leopards.

Another acute concern for the Amur leopards is the problem of inbreeding.  This problem is further exasperated by the leopards having such a tiny population, as there are only about 20-25 leopards left in the wild today.  This remaining population could disappear as a result of genetic degeneration.  The levels of diversity are remarkably low, which indicates a history of inbreeding over several generations.  These levels of genetic reduction could impede health, survival and reproduction of some, but not all, genetically diminished small populations.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is an initiative, made up of Russian and western conservation organisations, that works toward the conservation and protection of Amur leopards and tigers.  It works towards securing a future for these species in the Russian Far East and Northeast China.  ALTA collaborates with local, regional and federal government, and non-government organisations to protect the area’s biological wealth through sustainable development, conservation and local community involvement.  In this way, the extraordinary Amur leopard can hopefully be brought back from the brink of extinction, and onto the road of recovery.

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These men form part of the anti-poaching brigade of the Lazovsky State Nature Reserve. The work towards protecting the Amur leopard from poachers. Photo courtesy of WWF

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Photo courtesy of WWF

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Photo courtesy of WWF

South Africa fights for its Black rhinos

In 1961, the front page of a UK newspaper read “DOOMED” and was accompanied by a full-page photograph of 2 Black African rhinos.  The article claimed that these rhinos were doomed to extinction due to man’s greed, folly and neglect.  As a South African, the endangerment and poaching of rhinos seems to have more of a personal effect.

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These remarkable mammals have ranged across Africa and formed an important part of our natural and cultural heritage for thousands of years.  African royalty has revered rhinos as they epitomised the golden rhino buried with King Mapungubwe 800 years ago.  South Africans should be proud of their rhino history.  According to WWF Rhino Conservation, more than 75% of all rhinos are found in South Africa today.

Rhino horns are worth more than their weight in gold. Black rhinos have 2 horns, which makes them lucrative targets in the illegal trade in rhino horn.  96% of Africa’s black rhinos were killed between 1970 and 1992.  Today there continues to be a rise in demand for rhino horn, which resulted in black rhinos being critically endangered.  There has been an increase in rhino poaching, particularly in South Africa. This is driven by a growing demand from Asian consumers, especially in Vietnam, for remedies containing rhino horn, despite that it being scientifically proven that traditional medicines, aphrodisiacs and beauty treatments made from rhino horn have absolutely no effect.  To ensure future survival of rhinos, conservation and protection efforts have reached a critical status.

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Political instability and wars have greatly hindered rhino conservation work in Africa, especially in Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Somalia.  This situation has aggravated threats such as illegal trade in rhino horn and increased poaching due to poverty.  Habitat changes have also contributed to population declines.  For example, In Zimbabwe, privately owned rhino conservancies were invaded by landless people, reducing safe habitat and increasing the risk of snaring and poaching.  However, this is still a secondary threat compared to poaching.

The current wave of poaching is being committed by sophisticated and coordinated criminal networks that use night-vision equipment, helicopters, veterinary tranquilisers and silencers to poach rhinos at night, whilst attempting to avoid law enforcement patrols.  The number of poached rhino has increased drastically from 2010 to 2012, with 333 poached rhino in 2010, 448 in 2011, 668 in 2012 and already 146 in 2013, according to South African Government Information.

The most recent rhino poaching statistics indicate that the Kruger National Park, the world famous safari park that houses the largest numbers of Black and White rhinos in the country, is still the hardest to be hit.  15 rhinos have been poached since February 20th 2013.  This brings the number of slaughtered rhinos in this conservation area to 107 since the beginning of 2013.

Black rhinos in the Kruger National Park

Black rhinos in the Kruger National Park

The South African government has reacted by intensifying its law enforcement efforts.  50 people have been arrested; of these 47 are alleged poachers and 3 have been charged with illegal trading in rhino horn, as well as being in possession of rhino horn following a raid in Johannesburg in February.  Since the beginning of March, 2 poachers were arrested in the Kruger National Park, and 2 in Limpopo.

Recent success in black rhino conservation is encouraging, but much work must still be done to restore the population back up to even a fraction of what it once was, and to make sure that it stays there. WWF has launched an international effort to save Black rhinos, among other species, from the brink of extinction.  Conservation efforts have led to the increase in black rhino numbers from 2 410 in 1995, to 4 880 in 2010.  In order to bring the rhino to a state of complete safety, we have to work to stop poaching, increase rhino numbers, bring down the illegal rhino trade and improve law enforcement.

This is a video of the promising and encouraging work that was done by the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), in partnership with WWF-South Africa, Ezemvelo, KZN Wildlife and Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism.  Nineteen Black “Flying Rhinos” were transported via helicopter to a land vehicle.  They spent 10 minutes in the air, then woke up in new safer and more spacious home where they would have a greater opportunity to increase in number.

Mountain gorillas left in the aftermath of the Rwandan war

Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today.  Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles.  There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat.  These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

Despite their endangered status, Mountain gorillas had been one of conservation’s greatest success stories.  Decades ago these gorillas were on the brink of extinction, but conservation efforts were able to reverse the decline and lead them onto the road to recovery.  However, the Mountain gorillas now face a new threat, which is the aftermath of a tragic civil war that erupted in Rwanda in the early 1990s.  This war claimed the lives of 500 000, and created refugee camps that contained 750 000 people living in poverty and desperation on the borders of the gorillas’ reserves.  Ongoing political unrest is threatening to unravel almost 20 years of extraordinary conservation work.

There are no Mountain gorillas living in captivity.  Only the other subspecies, the lowland gorilla, can be found in zoos.  Mountain gorillas live at high altitudes of 10 000 feet or higher on the slopes of mountains or volcanoes.  They are herbivores, eating plants like thistle, nettles and wild celery that grows in the cool, moist mountain climate of their range in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire.  Gorillas live in family troops led by the largest male, called the silverback.  They are fiercely protective of their young and will literally defend them to death.  Poachers that are after baby gorillas for international trade often kill entire families in order to capture their bounty.

A Mountain gorilla with her baby in Rwanda

A Mountain gorilla with her baby in Rwanda – Photo courtesy of WWF

From early in the 20th century, hunters and collectors from the United States and Europe began to kill or capture Mountain gorillas.  50 gorillas were taken as trophies or for collections in 25 years.  Africa’s first national park was established for the gorillas in Zaire in 1925, by the Belgium government that was ruling at the time.

The gorillas were fairly well protected until 1960, however, civil war then erupted and park protection disappeared.  Gorillas were caught in poachers’ snares that were set up to capture animals for food.  They were also killed intentionally for their meat and parts: gorilla heads and hands were sold to tourists as souvenirs.

The gorillas have also lost large amounts of their habitat due to agriculture.  They live in countries that have some of the highest human populations in the world.  Every acre of land that is not protected is farmed.  Mountain gorillas therefore live in islands of mountaintop habitat in a sea of human settlement.  Terraced fields climb right to the border of the gorillas’ park, high up in the mountains.  Sounds of children playing in the fields can even be heard in the park, an intense reminder of the relentless pressures the expanding population places on gorilla habitat.

In the late 1970s, a new era in conservation began when international conservations organisations established the Mountain Gorilla Project to educate Rowandans about the gorillas, anti-poaching and bringing gorilla tourism to the area.  The program had profound effects on the local people’s attitudes.  Gorillas were placed in carefully controlled areas so that tourists could view them at close range.  This was so successful that at one time gorilla viewing was Rwanda’s third-largest earner of foreign currency.  Similar programs were initiated on the Ugandan and Zaire sides of the volcanoes of the gorillas’ habitat.  Rwandans realised that protecting the gorillas was in their economic interest.

A park ranger clearing away traps set to catch Mountain gorillas - Virunga National Park.  Photo courtesy of WWF

A park ranger clearing away traps set to catch Mountain gorillas – Virunga National Park. Photo courtesy of WWF

When the Civil war broke out in Rwanda in the early 1990s, it surprisingly did not decimate gorilla populations itself.  It did, however, inhibit gorilla tourism, cutting off the flow of much-needed foreign money.  Despite tens of thousands of soldiers and refugees passing through the gorilla’s habitat, and other animals being poached for food, few gorillas were actually killed in the war.

Guards and researchers remained in the park to protect the gorillas until they were forced to leave; they did this at great personal risk.  Some have managed to return to the park, but operations have not been able to resume to their formal level.  Civil unrest continues to be a major problem, and forests in the habitats in Zaire are being denuded for firewood in refugee camps.

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Park rangers patrolling the Virunga National Park boundary – Photo courtesy of WWF

The future of Mountain gorillas is depending on whether a stable government can be reinstated and maintained in Rwanda, and whether the country can feed and house its refugees without destroying the park.

This video shows the Virunga National Park and their efforts to save and protect the gorillas, as well as demonstrating the danger that rangers subsequently face.  The Virunga website.

For more information:  WWF Mountain gorillas and Bagheera Mountain gorilla, an Endangered Species. 

Park rangers come under the firing line trying to protect endangered species

It is not just endangered animals that face the ruthlessness of dangerous gangs and smugglers: park rangers have also come under the firing line. Heavily armed criminal syndicates and smugglers, and even rebel militia in some cases, are running the global wildlife trade. These gangs will stop at nothing, placing park rangers who are tasked with protecting these species in danger.

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A ranger who is tasked with protecting the beautiful, but isolated stretch of Savannah, in the heart of one of the poorest regions on earth

Over recent years hundreds of rangers have been killed, as poachers are relentless in their quest for lucrative animal parts such as rhino horn and ivory.  France24 reported that Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation (IRF), said that at least 1000 rangers have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade; however, he added that the true global figure could be closer to between 3000 – 5000. There seems to be war at the frontline of conservation. Willmore cited the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a group of 50 rangers came across a group of 5000 militia out poaching and armed with AK47s.

Zakouma National Park, Chad, demonstrates one example: elephant poachers shot down an entire squad of rangers. These poachers shot with a deadly precision. They crouched in the bushes from a triangle of different spots, whilst the rangers had been hunched over in prayer just before dawn. Among the freshly dug graves and empty bullet shells, the cost of protecting wildlife is horrifically clear. Ivory poaching is becoming more militarized, as rebel groups, and even government armies are slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa. Wildlife rangers, who tend to be older, yet incredibly knowledgeable about the environment and animals, are wading through the bushes only to find hardened soldiers.

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Park rangers travel on horseback, sleep in the bush and start patrolling early in the morning

Ivory poachers seem to be becoming increasingly ruthless and reckless. Dozens of African rangers have been killed in coldblooded murder. In Zimbabwe, poachers are using deadly poison on elephant carcasses to kill the vultures. These birds serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has taken place. Therefore making it even more dangerous for rangers as they then have no idea when poachers are around.

Zakouma rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once great and magnificent herd of elephants has nearly been exterminated. It is one of the most extreme declines of an elephant population in Africa, as 90% of the herd has been poached off in the last 10 years. There has only been one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past 2 years, as with all the shooting and stress, the elephants do not breed.

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Attacks by elephants or lions do make poachers’ work dangerous enough. They also have a lack of training and equipment, and low wages weighing against them. Although, wildlife crime has always been known as a low-risk crime, with high profits. These criminals are still determined to capitalise on large animal reserves in the world’s most unstable and poorest countries, such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To worsen the situation, these groups are not only involved in wildlife crime, but also other illicit trades such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

The countries that have faced the most damage due to wildlife trafficking are willing to tackle this issue, but they do so with limited means. However, some countries have not even made wildlife trafficking a serious crime, which makes convictions of the criminals difficult. Political commitment against the poaching needs to be accompanied and assisted by national and international resources. There must be sustainable movements against the actual poachers, but middlemen working in transit countries must also be dealt with, as well as the distributors and merchandisers in market countries. The whole corrupt network of wildlife crime needs to be taken apart. This is a very difficult task, as much of these trafficked animal products are destined for use in Asia as traditional medicines or delicacies.

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

This is an article that was featured in the New York Times, demonstrating rangers in isolated Central Africa, under the grim cost of protecting wildlife.

Earning our Stripes against Tiger Poaching

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Tiger (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Tigers are known to be one of the most charismatic animals in the world.  At the beginning of the 20th century, more that 100 000 tigers roamed the Asian continent with powerful strength and magnificent beauty.  It is this beauty, however, that has led to their undoing.  Today, WWF reports that there are as few as 3200 tigers left in the world.

Tigers have had a history of persecution for over 1000 years.  They have been hunted as status symbols, for use in traditional medicine, and as decorative objects.  Tiger populations have also declined due to loss of habitat, because of human expansion.
The Chinese Mafia is one of the main clients of tiger poaching, and is thought to be the most frightening new organisation in international crime.  A dead tiger is worth more than a live tiger, due to a market that exploits tiger products for skin care, the stimulation of potency and a combat to laziness.  The mafia is therefore pumping this market that makes about 30 billion US dollars each year in the selling of poached tigers.  The smuggling of tiger furs is thriving, with one fur being valued at between 10 000 and 50 000 US dollars.  Traditional Chinese medicine has also taken on an overwhelming and dangerous role in the tigers’ demise: tigers’ whiskers, claws and sexual organs are used in Asian medicine as a potency remedy.  Portions of soup made from tiger-penis are sold for up to 800 Dollars.  Out of all of this the Mafia gains up to 400 000 dollars per tiger.
Tigers fight

Tigers fight (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

The controlling members of the mafia take advantage of people in poverty-stricken circumstances, often in destitute countries such as India, by motivating them into poaching in exchange for money.  Although the mafia works on a massive profit margin for poached tigers, the people who actually perform the poaching receive the smallest part of the revenues.  For example, a poacher in India only receives between 30 and 50 dollars per one dead animal.  The severe poverty of the people is then a huge force behind the endangerment of these animals, with international organised crime, ignorance and greed being the dominant driving features.

The tigers’ situation is increasingly dramatizing.  In India alone, more than half of the tiger population has been wiped out between 2002 and 2005.  It has been estimated that there  \were more than 40 000 tigers one hundred years ago, and yet today less than 1 500 remain in India.  However, the tigers have been facing a long story of disappearance.

In the first half of the 20th century, tiger hunting was a famous sport for the Maharadjas, and this included rich visitors from industrial countries.  This gruesome “sport” led to 95% of India’s tiger population to be wiped out by the 1960s, and sent the remaining tigers straight onto the endangered species list.

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In reaction to this, India’s minister-president of 1973, Indira Gandi, forbade the hunting of tigers.  However, governments of other Asian countries did not follow Gandi’s decision of prudence and consequently three breeds of tigers became extinct.  The world will never again be able to witness the beauty and majesty of the Bali Tiger (died out in 1940), the Java Tiger (died out in 1979) and the Caspic Tiger (died out in 1970).  Other tiger populations, such as the south Chinese, Malayan, Amur and Sumatra, have also declined at an alarming rate and experts foresee the possibility and threat of a looming extinction.

Measures are being taken to protect the tigers worldwide, however, the situation shows that a much more dramatic stance needs to be taken in order for the efforts to be sufficient.