15 July 2011


ELEPHANTS IN CRISIS. "Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead -- and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China's 'suddenly wealthy' has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. Tens of thousands of elephants [are] being slaughtered every year for their tusks, raising the specter of an 'extinction vortex'." Thus begins Alex Shoumatoff's investigative report Agony and Ivory on the slaughter of Africa's wildlife icon.

He reveals that even in heavily-patrolled game reserves like Amboseli National Park in Kenya, highly mobile poachers armed with automatic weapons make the task of protecting resident elephant herds not only difficult, but lethal. When the 2008 global recession struck, Kenya's tourism was cut in half, further eroding protection. Native Maasai herders, who once coexisted with wildlife, have been lured by the prospect of easy money to assist poachers in their deadly pursuit.

"There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile long highway just above the park. Since the road crews arrived in 2009, four of Amboseli's magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs -- a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an extinction vortex.

"Unfortunately, this problem isn't limited to Kenya. Across the continent, in their 37 range states, from Mali to South Africa, Ethiopia to Gabon, elephants are being killed at the rate of around 100 a day, 36,500 a year .... Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania are losing thousands. Chad, home to 15,000 elephants in 1979, has less than 400 left. Sierra Leone is down to single digits.

" .... This new crisis is being driven by China's nouveaux riches, or bao fa hu (suddenly wealthy), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status."

This story breaks my heart. I've never visited Africa, but part of me has belonged there since I was a child. I have no words (and even less tolerance) for those who wantonly murder wildlife for "sport", trophies, obscure and mythical medicinal properties, or vanity. The cancer that is human overpopulation, coupled with human greed, has already driven countless species large and small to extinction, on every habitable continent. The genocide can occur as direct hunting, or less obviously masked by destruction of habitat for human development (synonymous with the rape of nature). Illegal poaching should be a capital offense worldwide, and rigorously enforced. In Kenya, perhaps Africa's most enlightened nation when it comes to conservation, park rangers are armed and authorized to shoot to kill. I only wish that every nation adopted such rigorous measures to protect what little remains of the natural world.

ASSATEAGUE FERAL HORSES. In the U.S., feral horses inhabit other ranges in addition to the American West. On Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, a population of 113 resident feral horses is undergoing culture shock. Like black bears in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Assateague's horses have been approached, fed, photographed, and treated like pets by tourists. And like black bears, the horses have become habituated to humans, addicted to handouts, and sometimes aggressive when people come too close. It is a situation we ourselves have created, by not respecting their home and their integrity. The Assateague ponies are related to, and share ancestry with, Chincoteague ponies just up the coast. Both groups were once one herd, and are thought to be descended from 17th-century horses which were either survivors of Spanish galleon shipwrecks, or set loose by colonists to avoid livestock laws and taxes on the mainland ~ depending on which story you believe.

Here is a Washington Post article describing the deteriorating situation, and here is a brief slide show demonstrating human/horse interactions.

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