The Plight Of Elephants In Africa

Elephants are being killed at an alarming rate due to want of their tusks for the illegal sale of ivory in the black market primarily China but also Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. Poaching is currently at the highest it has been in 20 years. In 2011, over 25,000 African elephants were killed, though the actual figure is much higher, maybe even double when factoring in the weight of illegal ivory seized. In 2011, 34.7 tons was seized, equaling 69,400 pounds. It is estimated that each set of tusks weighs 22 pounds. Interpol’s rule of thumb states that of illegal contraband seized, it is only ten percent of actual smuggling totally over 31,500 elephants. Both sexes of African elephants have tusks and while all males of Asian elephants have tusks, it is rare for a female to grow tusks and if she does, they are very small. Males without tusks do exist, though usually in Sri Lanka.

Between 1970 and 1985, half of the African elephants were killed for their tusks. At the 1989 CITES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting, 115 countries banned the international trade of ivory and the African elephant was listed under Appendix I, in danger of becoming extinct, though in some African nations they are listed under Appendix II, meaning they are not in imminent danger of extinction, but may become so. Every year CITES is held, this year it is March 3rd to 14th in Bangkok, Thailand.

The purchasing countries have different reasons for wanting tusks. Japan uses ivory for signature seals known as "hankas." China regards it as extremely valuable and the government has even licensed 35 carving factories and 130 ivory retail outlets. They also sponsor ivory carving in schools.

In the Philippines, Catholic devotees buy ivory-carved Christ figures and other religious icons. They have the third largest Catholic population in the world, 75 million. Cristobal Garcia was dismissed from St. Dominic’s of Los Angeles in the 80’s for sexually abusing an altar boy, now is the head of the country's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, 4 million people. As monsignor, he advocates the use of ivory, advising his followers to buy ivory. The Vatican has not joined CITES, so ivory is for sale there and Popes still accept and give ivory gifts, even as recently as 2007.

In Thailand, “The Elephant Monk,” Kurba Dharmamuni, claims he has a following of 100,000 around the world. He sells ivory amulets in his gift shop, online, and in his travels. Before a public exposé, he was making $32,000 a month, now he is down to $10,000 a month.

In Kenya, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) was established in 1977, in response to the mass killing of Africa’s wildlife and the destruction of its environment. It is named after the founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, David Sheldrick, where he served from the park’s inception in 1948 until his transfer to Nairobi to the newly created Wildlife Conservation & Management Department in 1976. David died only 6 months later. Daphne, his wife, worked alongside him from 1955 until his death. During that time she rehabilitated and raised numerous species reintegrating them back into the wild. She lives at the DSWT nursery where she was the first person to have perfected the milk formula and husbandry for milk-dependent elephants and rhinos. Baby elephants are milk dependent for the first two years of their life.

DSWT is probably best known for their dedication to rearing orphaned infant elephants, usually the result of poaching. Elephants are very sensitive and loving beings that live with their families their whole life, except males who leave during puberty. Witnessing the murder of their mother and family traumatizes them. They often have nightmares from the experience. During their stay at the nursery, keepers sleep with them, though in rotation, because the elephants will become attached to one caretaker which can become traumatic when separated. It is crucial to nurture them psychologically as well as physically because once they go off into a wild herd, if they are neurotic, they could face rejection. Since elephants are sensitive, tactile and social beings, their caretakers are demonstratively affectionate with touch and vocalization.

Elephants have a natural lifespan the same as humans. They are infants until age 2, children until age 10, teenagers from 10 to 20 and elderly in their 50’s. While they can live to be in their 70’s or 80’s, sadly, that is rare due to poaching.

Around two years of age, if psychologically and physically stable, they are transferred from the nursery to one of the two rehabilitation centers. There, they walk in the bush, browse on vegetation and take a mud bath before returning to the stockade at night. Here, the keepers no longer sleep with the elephants. The elephants are never beaten or forced to do something they don’t want to do. The keepers control them with the tone of their voice, a wag of the finger or an arm gesture.

Elephants can hear through vibrations in their feet and communicate via “infrasound” over miles, beyond human hearing range and this they have to learn from other elephants. So, the younger the orphans can be exposed to the wild and older elephants, their learning process is easier; and so is the transition into a natural wild existence.

Each orphan decides when to leave and go into the wild. They are never put out. It is a gradual process which can span l0 years. Orphans who have grown up together usually return to visit those who are still in the stockade or even take one of their friends out for a night in the wild. Sometimes, they return escorted, usually by a couple of ex-orphaned bull elephants if they feel insecure without their human protection in the darkness. Of those that survive their trauma, all eventually return to the wild. Although it is not uncommon for them to return to have an arrow or snare removed or simply to visit.

Fostering an orphan elephant or rhino can be done at a minimum of $50 a year. These packages are sent to you via the internet. You will receive a fostering certificate, picture, profile, a description of the Orphans Project, which includes an interactive map where your orphan was found and a description of the habitat and situation of orphans area, a monthly summary and a direct link to the keepers diary, pictures, a monthly watercolor by Angela Sheldrick, news of new arrivals and rescues with photographs, and being considered part of the DSWT team, you will receive personal contact as well. The link to foster is:

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is also active in supporting many conservation efforts. They have a de-snaring project, removing snares set to capture wildlife, saving hundreds of animals. They also have an anti-poaching unit to guard animals from poachers as well as to arrest or kill poachers. The Kenya Wildlife Service directly benefits from DSWT for fuel, vehicle maintenance, as well as other assistance to maintain functioning. The DSWT work with neighboring communities around the park to improve living conditions through boring water holes, windmills, radio and educational programs, provide sports equipment and tree saplings, field trips, and educate future generations to protect wildlife and the environment. Tourists, 70 percent, go to Kenya to see the wildlife. Future generations need to be instilled with the interdependency and value of their country's wildlife. 

A petition has been established to be presented at CITES. Please voice your opposition to the Illegal Ivory Trade at

To read more, get involved, and donate, visit their website at online.

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Volume 5, Issue 3, Posted 6:14 AM, 03.02.2013