Letter from Africa: Elephant in the room

An elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia

In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the outcome of the recent conference on the illegal wildlife trade, hosted by the UK government.

Sorry to go on about elephants when there are more pressing human problems all around us.

To be fair, the human problems will be with us for some time to come but alas, the elephants may not be.

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Farai Sevenzo

An elephant killer is no longer a lone bush tracker with a rusty rifle and a spear for back up”

End Quote Farai Sevenzo

Three princes, four presidents, various foreign affairs ministers, wildlife experts and a clutch of wildlife charities gathered in London earlier this month to shine a spotlight on the illegal trade in wildlife.

The numbers of murdered elephants are growing every day and of course there is a link to their gruesome deaths and the increasing demand for their ivory in markets as far afield as China and Vietnam.

The presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania all spoke up about the efforts being made to deter poaching. Those of us following this story were reminded by secret filming which showed ivory and rhino horn freely available in market stalls all over Asia.

They decided stockpiles of ivory around the world confiscated from smugglers and tusks taken from naturally expiring elephants and animals culled by game rangers were to be destroyed.

There were also reports that Prince William had expressed a yearning to destroy all the artefacts made of ivory in the British royal palaces.

Porous borders

If an elephant could have been present at the Wildlife in Danger conference, that elephant in the room would have applauded such high level interest in his species' fate.

Chadian President Idriss Deby lights a pyre on which elephant tusks were incinerated at Zakouma National Park, Chad - 21 February 2014 Chad's president set alight a pile of tusks last Friday following the conference

But he would also have reminded all present that his kind do not hold passports and that many more African presidents, including those from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and everywhere else his species roam, should all agree or there would be holes bigger than the cavities where his tusks used to be in their efforts to save his kind from extinction through poaching.

Then he would look around the gathered delegates and strain his massive ears to hear what the Chinese and other Asian delegates had to say about the rise in value of ivory and the tremendous demand it commands in Asia.

He would want to know - is it true that the trade in ivory now commands billions of dollars? What is it about elephants the Chinese love so much, for there is no year of the elephant in their zodiac?

But the elephant in the room would hear nothing back, for the Asian delegates told us nothing and did not speak.

'White gold'

Even as the African presidents promised a 10-year moratorium on the sale of their ivory, the WWF estimated that the black market for the wildlife trade - including illicit ivory - was now nudging $19bn (£11bn) a year.

Confiscated decorative ivory piled together in preparation to be destroyed during an event at the National Wildlife Property Repository at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado in the US - November 2013 The illicit wildlife trade is estimated to total about $19bn (£11bn) annually

What does $19bn mean in the struggle to save the elephants?

It means that an elephant killer is no longer a lone bush tracker with a rusty rifle and a spear for back-up; that with billions at stake, organised crime can see money at every watering hole, in every country, through every porous border.

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Does it make sense then to destroy stockpiles of ivory?”

End Quote Farai Sevenzo

The poachers have global positioning satellite devices; they use rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles and carry off elephant tusks by helicopter.

The London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade concluded in its declaration that "there is a serious threat to the survival of many species if action is not taken to tackle the… trade".

And the UN General Assembly has decided to proclaim 3 March as World Wildlife Day.

But the elephant in the room keeps going back to that outrageous figure - $19bn - and must surely conclude that no amount of proclamations can guarantee the elephants' survival in the face of such relentless Asian commerce for tusks.

It is one of the oddities of delayed conscience that governments rush to destroy things when our moral indignation floats above the dollar signs.

Does it make sense then to destroy stockpiles of ivory?

Should we not be legally selling it to those with an ivory fixation and using the funds to fight the war against poaching?

But if folk in Beijing continue to call elephant ivory "white gold", it seems that it is going to be a long and bloody war to save Africa's elephants.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    You will be telling me that I have to hand over my jacket made from the last 10 Welsh Ice Shrews next!

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    It's an unwinnable war. In fact I suspect some in the "industry" might welcome total extinction. The price of existing ivory artefacts would go "through the roof" Massive profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Burning stock piles of elephants ivory only sustain the vacuum in the market for further supply to fill the demand. Pointlessly destroying ivory will not bring back the elephants and put further risk to live elephants to replace the ivory lost.
    We cannot bring back the elephants who died and putting in danger elephant lives to replace the ivory destroyed is not an ecological strategy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    I think the ornaments made with ivory are disgusting to say the least. Ivory and Rhino horn look best on the animal in an African forest where they belong.

    I think polite comments useless. The poachers and people who buy this need to understand the intense hatred we as a public have for
    people who commit these atrocities. Buyers are the main culprits.

    Poor animals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    FLOOD THE MARKET with all the confiscated ivory
    drive the cost down and sell it ALL
    To the the highest bidders
    Buy the land and create safe Conservations to save the still living Elephants on the Rhinos

    AND make taking of ivory from a living animal punishable by death Period .


Comments 5 of 124


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