Elephants May Be Extinct In Tanzania In A Few Years

elephants, TanzaniaJumbo Elephants may disappear from Tanzania within seven years if current poaching trends continue, Sabahi news service reports.

The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute counted 109,000 elephants in 2009. In 2012, the number had sunk below 70,000. This is due to a surge in poaching. Elephant ivory commands high prices on the international black market. If current trends continue, the elephants could be entirely wiped out within seven years.

The decline in elephants is a step backwards. In the 1980s, during a period of heavy poaching and lax enforcement, the population dipped as low as 55,000. Thanks to better legal enforcement and protection, elephants made a major recovery. Now all that hard work may be ruined.

This comes after sobering news that rhinos are now extinct In Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park. These localized extinctions make it hard for species to maintain a viable population. Groups of animals get smaller and further separated, reducing the available breeding stock.

More detail on the elephant situation in Tanzania can be found in this government report.

[Photo courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim]

More Than 11,000 Elephants Poached In Gabon In Past Decade, Officials Estimate

elephantsThe West African nation of Gabon has one of the largest populations of elephants in the world, yet now they’re in danger of being wiped out for their ivory.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that a study done by itself in cooperation with the Gabonese National Parks Agency and the Wildlife Conservation Society found that up to 11,000 elephants were killed by poachers in Gabon since 2004. That may be up to 77 percent of the total population.

Most of the killings took place in and around Minkébé National Park, a vast and remote area that’s supposed to be a safe haven for wildlife.

The area is home to forest elephants, which are especially prized by poachers because their ivory is unusually hard and has a pink tinge to it, making it more profitable to sell on the international black market.

As we reported last month, the illegal ivory trade rose to its highest level ever in 2011. This is mainly due to a rising demand in Asia. While some African nations are investing in more law enforcement, corruption in both Africa and Asia is keeping the illegal trade in ivory alive.

Is it any wonder that another recent study found that elephants try to avoid humans?

The WWF is circulating a petition to stop ivory trade in Thailand. It says in part, “Thailand is also the biggest unregulated market for ivory in the world. Although it is against the law to sell ivory from African elephants in Thailand, ivory from domestic Thai elephants can be sold legally. As a result, massive quantities of illegal African ivory are being laundered through Thai shops.”

The petition already has more than 200,000 signatures, including mine. They’re trying to get to a million.

[Image of forest elephant in Ivindo National Park, Gabon, courtesy Peter H. Wrege]

Skype Banned In Ethiopia, Punishable By 15 Years In Prison

Skype, EthiopiaA new law passed in Ethiopia has banned Voice Over Internet Protocol services such as Skype, Al Jazeera reports. Use of such services is punishable by large fines and up to 15 years in prison. The law was passed with little fanfare on May 24 but has only just become noticed by international media.

The government-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly on telecommunications but the country is filled with cybercafes where people can make low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Ethiopians complain that Ethio Telecom’s international calling rates are unaffordable and Internet calls are their only option. This move blocks such competition.

Another probable reason for the move is to quash internal dissent. Several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Somalis have armed independence groups inside Ethiopia. These groups get support from abroad and so the government may be trying to cut their lines of communication and funding.

Use of the Tor Project online anonymity provider has also been banned.

Having spent several months in Ethiopia in 2010 and 2011, and being in regular contact with people in the country since, I can attest to the difficulty in using the Internet there. Service is slow, and sometimes gets cut off entirely when there’s a skirmish with one of the rebel groups or a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. These cutoffs are invariably called “equipment malfunctions.”

Emails from abroad often don’t make it to people in Ethiopia. Those with business licenses always seem to get their email, but private citizens often don’t. Ethiopians have told me this is because of government security fears. Many people use Facebook for email because the government can’t block direct messages on the site. I myself have resorted to using Facebook for most of my communication with Ethiopian friends and colleagues.

And in case you’re wondering, our emails have nothing that could possibly be construed as a security risk. Emails about archaeology, historic preservation and simple hellos have gone missing. This is a shame because Ethiopia has a growing educated class that has a lot to say and is thirsty for contact and information from the outside world. Opening up the lines of communications could very well bring on an Ethiopian renaissance from which we’d all benefit.

Ethiopia’s government bills itself as a bastion of democratic stability in an unstable region and as an ally in the War on Terror, but laws such as this show that the current regime is anything but democratic.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

Ivory poaching on the rise thanks to Asian demand and a legal loophole

poaching, ivoryThe poaching of elephant tusks is a growing problem due to increased demand from Asian nations, the Kenyan newspaper Business Daily reports.

A loophole in the UN law regulating the ivory trade allows Japan and China to legally purchase some ivory from selected nations under tightly controlled contracts. This has encouraged poachers to smuggle their illegal goods to Asia. Once there, it’s much easier to unload them.

African nations are split on a global ivory ban, with Kenya supporting a ban and Tanzania wanting the trade to be legal. This basically comes down to whether nations want short-term profits by killing their wildlife and hacking their tusks off, or long-term profits from safaris and tourism.

Radio Netherlands reports that 2011 was a record year for ivory seizures, showing that at least some nations are taking the problem seriously. It also suggests, of course, that the trade is on the rise.

Authorities around the world made at least 13 large-scale seizures last year, bagging more than 23 tonnes of ivory. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, says that represents about 2,500 elephants. The figure is more than twice that of 2010.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress. It dates to sometime between 1880 and 1923, showing poaching isn’t a new problem.