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.

Tanzania Game Reserve at Risk

First, a highway through the Serengeti, now, a uranium mine in Selous Game Reserve. Tanzania’s plans are drawing the ire of environmentalists, conservationists, and zebra-and-wildebeest huggers around the world. The government is eying Tanzanian game and park lands for developments that are in direct conflict with migrating wildlife, potentially risking their only sustainable economic sector: tourism. From an eTurbo News article:

Tourism is potentially the most important sustainable economic sector for Tanzania. We can make more money over a longer term, and create more jobs, earn more forex, and introduce more investment than mining Uranium in the Selous. The mine might last maybe 25 or 30 years, and the environmental damage will be huge. Once the resource has been plundered, I have really no other description, it will be the same like with our gold deposits. The ‘investors’ will move on and leave us with giant holes in the ground and massive destruction.

The Selous Game Reserve is home to elephants, black rhinos, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and hundreds of bird species. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site occupying over 20,000 square miles of Tanzanian savanna. Access to the reserve is supposedly tightly managed — there are no permanent structures human habitation allowed — but poaching is still a problem. And there are those valuable minerals in the ground, tempting short term exploration and exploitation with potentially permanent long term consequences. From the UNESCO listing for the Selous Game Reserve:

The most significant threats are related to exploration and extraction of minerals, oil and gas, and large infrastructure plans; environmental impact assessments need to be conducted for all development activities in the vicinity of the property that are likely to have an impact of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value.

A BBC report says that the government is determined to push the uranium mining project though in spite of objections. From the BBC:

…the uranium mining project was in its infancy, but it would only affect about 0.69% of the current World Heritage site park and would be an important source of income for the country

Firms could expect to earn $200m (£125m) each year from mining uranium from the site, of which $5m would be paid to the government…

It’s unclear if the profit is worth the potential long term damage.

Photo by Bierbauer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The hyena man of Harar: a unique relationship between beast and man

Harar, harar, hyena, hyena man
The hyenas come just after dusk. We’ve been sitting in Yusuf’s modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Harar talking about them when we hear their familiar yipping laugh. Yusuf picks up a big bucket of mule and camel meat, shoos away his well-fed cat, and strolls outside to meet them.

Yusuf is Harar’s biggest celebrity, the famous “hyena man” whom everyone who has heard anything about Harar has heard about. He’s not Harari, though, his parents were Oromo and Somali, and he lives outside Harar’s medieval walls next to the town dump, a favorite hangout for hyenas.

Yusuf calls out into the darkness, and I spot a few hulking, dark shapes beyond the clearing in front of his house. He sets the meat down and whistles, like you’d do with a pet dog. One by one, the hyenas emerge from the shadows, giant canine shapes like Rottweilers on steroids. At first they seem uncertain, creeping closer and backing away again as Yusuf pulls out ribbons of raw flesh from the bucket.

I sit down to watch.

I’ve come with Marcus Baynes-Rock, an Australian graduate student who’s doing his Ph.D. thesis on the interaction between people and hyenas in Harar, and keeps a fascinating blog about Harar hyenas. As Yusuf puts a strip of meat on the end of a stick and holds it out to the lead hyena, Marcus tells me about the strange and unique coexistence that’s sprung up between humans and hyenas in this region of East Africa.

%Gallery-120767%Hyenas are deeply rooted in Harari and Ethiopian folklore. Blacksmiths and the Argobba people and supposed to be werehyenas, turning into the animals at night. The Jews do too, but most of them left for Israel during the last civil war. Hyenas are also supposed to gobble up djinn, evil spirits, and so are useful to have around.

“I met one young guy from Djibouti who had been possessed by djinn and came all the way to Harar to feed the hyenas and have them take the djinn away,” Marcus tells me.

It’s not just the Hararis who have stories about hyenas. The Somalis tell a tale of the Habercha’alow clan, which tried to drive the hyenas out of their territory by killing a bunch of them. The hyenas took revenge, picking off lone Habercha’alow.

“If a Habercha’alow and two men from other clans were sleeping by a fire, they’d take the Habercha’alow and leave the others untouched,” a Somali friend told me.

After suffering heavy losses, the Habercha’alow wanted to make peace. As mediators they hired the Idagalle, a clan well-known for their ability to talk with hyenas. They met in the desert. Delegates from the Habercha’alow sat to one side, delegates from the hyenas sat to the other, and the Idagalle mediators sat in the middle. They communicated, so I’m told, by mental telepathy. The Habercha’alow agreed to pay blood money to the hyenas in the form of a large number of slaughtered camels. And thus the war stopped.

Despite their size, hyenas are timid creatures, as I can see by the amount of coaxing Yusuf has to do to get the first hyenas of the evening to feed from his hand.

“They’re really scared of people,” Marcus says, “Dogs too. They don’t realize their jaws can break us in two.”

As if to emphasize his point a loud snap cuts through the night. A hyena has taken some meat. Yusuf fishes in his bucket for another piece as the hyenas, more confident now, crowd around.

Yusuf tells me he learned from his uncle, a farmer who started feeding the hyenas back in the 1950s. His uncle started feeding the hyenas partially to keep them away from his livestock, and partially because he liked them. While many cultures hate the hyenas and try to kill them, or shut their doors in fear, the Hararis are at peace with them. Low doorways in the city wall allow them to come and go at night, eating garbage and taking away djinn. When a Harari passes one in an alleyway, he’ll often greet it by saying darmasheikh (“young wise man”). I tried this myself one night and the hyena looked at me curiously for a moment before padding into the darkness.

But it’s not all peaceful. Yusuf’s feeding is not just out of friendliness, but also to placate the hyenas. As scavengers, they’ll sometimes root out freshly buried corpses and even snatch away small children. A beggar woman sleeping outside Selassie church had her baby taken from her one night a couple of years ago, and there have been other incidents too. When this happens the Hararis say the hyena was rabid or not from Harar. Yusuf himself was bitten by one when he was two years old.

“At that time I didn’t know the difference between a hyena and a dog so I never developed a fear,” he explains.

Yusuf has a large group of hyenas around him now. More come out of the shadows. Fights break out between the powerful beasts for the best scraps, and Yusuf shouts at them and even shoves one away like a misbehaving dog. One wanders into his compound to look around his house.

“Yusuf feeds them inside sometimes,” Marcus says.

Yusuf hands me the stick with a strip of meat hanging from the end. A moment later it’s nearly torn from my grasp as powerful jaws clamp down on it.

By now some tourists have shown up. Yusuf is a celebrity, after all. These are Ethiopian tourists, a middle-class family from Addis Ababa. One man holds his toddler son and I eye them nervously. Yusuf greets them and hands the stick to the most nervous one in the group. As a hyena hurries forward to get the meat this guy literally falls on his ass trying to get away. I think I catch a mischievous gleam in Yusuf’s eye. The man’s wife, unimpressed by her husband’s performance, offers to go next. She feeds it several times and even pets it.

“Not bad,” I say to Marcus, “Maybe you can use her as an assistant.”

Marcus likes to pet the hyenas, even though it means all the dogs in town can smell hyena on him and bark as he passes by. Not that’s he’s out in the daytime much. Usually he only comes out at night to follow the hyenas around town to see where they go.

We’re sitting on a low step in front of a Muslim shrine. Yusuf is next to me, the stick in his teeth as he feeds the hyenas from mouth to mouth. Suddenly a big furry form pushes between us. A hyena has gotten onto the platform behind us and reaches over our shoulders. He grabs a strip of camel meat and jerks it off the stick, slapping me across the face with it as he runs off.

“Would you like some toilet paper?” Yusuf asks, again with that gleam in his eye.

“No thanks, I brought some,” I say as I wipe my face.

It’s just another night feeding the hyenas.

To see the hyena man in action, check out the video below. It’s not mine, unfortunately. Upload a video on Ethiopian dialup? Yeah, right!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: The worst zoo I’ve ever seen!

The Ugly Truth: Gadling’s revolutionary new video series to launch in May

ugly truth gadling videoWith the goal of improving its cross-platform social media presence, Gadling proudly announces the Ugly Truth, a new video series hell-bent on capturing the viler dimensions of the travel blogger lifestyle.

The Ugly Truth series will revolutionize the sanitized travel show media with depictions of a host of things designed to provoke intense, visceral reactions from viewers.

There’s some great hardcore gross-out material, of course, and there are also plenty of examples of a newly-diagnosed condition referred to by doctors as TBRC (Travel Blogger Rage Syndrome).

“We’re excited to bring the more disgusting side of travel to the attention of Gadling’s audience,” says Gadling Editor-in-chief Grant Martin. “And really, who cares about boring travel news or how-to posts dealing with travel logistics, flight upgrade strategies, or museum discounts when you’ve got video footage of Meg Nesterov consumed by TBRC, beating a defenseless Turkish cat? Or a video of Jeremy Kressmann having eating one too many Big Macs in Thailand, losing his lunch in a tuk-tuk?”

Which Gadling writer chewed so much khat in East Africa last summer that he puked for days? We’ll tell you–better yet, we’ll show you.

Which Gadling writer had a torrid affair with the head of a major European national tourist board? We’ll show you that as well, with crystal-clear HD footage that leaves nothing–not even some unfortunate back acne–to the imagination.

There is also a mine of simply baffling, unclassifiable material on tap, like the dreamy sequence documenting the Gadling contributor so in love with the room’s décor at São Paulo’s Fasano that she arose from a nap to lick the edge of her desk.

Martin, again: “We’d really like to become the first place people turn to for disgusting travel videos, and we’re really pushing our stable of writers to take the lead by getting themselves into some truly gross situations. I can’t wait to see the enormous traffic these gems are going to get!”

And as for rumors that Martin’s recent TBRC episode involving an inefficient airport employee at Kastrup will appear in a The Ugly Truth episode to be released on June 17? “No comment.”

Check out the first installment of The Ugly Truth in early May.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

[Image: Flickr | Mike Burns]

Getting to Harar: riding the bus through eastern Ethiopia

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, harar
It’s good to be back in Ethiopia again.
I’ve noticed some changes since my last trip to Ethiopia. More high-rises are going up in the capital Addis Ababa and ATMs have finally appeared. The Internet is faster too, although it isn’t the full broadband promised by the government.
Addis is fun, but my real destination is Harar, a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Harar is reached by a ten-hour bus ride run by two companies–Salaam Bus and Sky Bus. I’m taking Sky Bus (“German technology, Chinese price”) which like its rival offers modern coaches, breakfast, and even a TV playing Ethiopian movies and music videos. This luxury can’t change the fact that you’re stuck in a bus for ten hours, though.
For some reason Ethiopians like to start long trips at an ungodly hour of the morning, so at 5:30am we set out through the darkened streets of Addis Ababa. The only people on the streets are a few sad-eyed prostitutes and drunks staggering home, and joggers zipping along during the only hours the streets aren’t choked with exhaust. A homeless man, bulky under layers of rags, grasps a telephone pole and does a series of quick deep-knee bends.
The sky brightens to the east as the buildings thin out and the countryside opens up. Thatched roof huts called tukuls dot the landscape like haystacks. Farmers with adzes over their shoulders stroll to their fields while tiny children wield thin sticks to control herds of goats.
The road is asphalt all the way but modernity creates its own hazards. Increased speed on aged, bald tires leads to blowouts and more than once we have to creep along the edge of the road to pass overturned trucks. One blocks the road entirely. The bigger vehicles turn around back in the direction of Addis, now two hours behind us. My heart sinks. Our driver doesn’t like that option so he steers the bus off road. Thorn trees scrape the metal sides of the bus like witches’ fingernails. We run over several bushes and sharp stones and I’m positive we’ll puncture a tire, but we emerge victorious back on the road and speed along. Not two miles further on we pass an overturned beer truck. Smashed bottles lie in glittering heaps and the tang of alcohol wafts through the cabin.Little else happens and I feel a bit lonely. Last time I did this route I was sitting in the middle of a half dozen college girls who all wanted to practice their English. Harar was taking care of me even before I arrived. This time the woman next to me gives me a friendly smile and a hello as she sits down and the proceeds to ignore me for the next ten hours. That’s a Western trait I hope doesn’t catch on in Ethiopia. I stare out the window. The defunct Addis-Djibouti railway snakes by, its rails slowly rusting under the sun. We pass little villages next to sheer gorges cut into the hard-baked soil. In the rainy season they become filled with raging torrents. Now none of them have more than a trickle.
We stop for a pee break. The men stand behind thorn bushes as the women cross the street and squat behind a low ridge. As I come back to the bus I see the driver throwing out a pile of trash into the field. All along Ethiopia’s roads you can see plastic bags blowing in the wind. The Ethiopians don’t think anything of it now but some day they’ll regret it.
Then it’s another several hours before we stop at Hirna, a collection of concrete buildings on either side of the highway, for lunch at a noisy little two-room restaurant. I look in vain for an empty table until a man waves me over with a hand covered in sauce.
“I’m Kete, want some lamb?” he asks as he indicates a platter of injera bread and a long bone with some meat stuck to it.
I roll up my sleeve and order a cup of rich Ethiopian coffee. All food is finger food here. You tear off a piece of bread and dip it in some sauce, or use it to grab some meat from the lamb shank.
Kete works for an NGO helping children orphaned by AIDS. They provide education, vocational training, and healthcare. I’ll be covering their branch in Addis later in this series. We chat until his phone rings and he’s called off to a meeting. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “work never stops. Enjoy your trip.”
Soon our driver comes through the restaurant clapping his hands to tell us to get back onto the bus. The highway to the east of Hirna winds up and down a series of ever higher hills. The land is drier but people still wrest a life out of it. Ever since leaving Addis we’ve been driving through the Oromo region. The Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups and populate the region all the way to the Somali lowlands. Harar is an island in the middle, separate from but reliant on the surrounding Oromo.
We arrive in the mid-afternoon and park on the main street connecting the new city with the Jugol, the walled medieval Harar. My spirits lift immediately. I say goodbye to Mrs. Silent, grab my backpack, and head towards my hotel. A bejaj, one of the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia, sputters up and the driver asks, “Where are you going?”
“Ras Hotel.”
“I’ll take you there for 15 birr.”
“Fifteen birr? It’s only a five-minute walk away.”
He looks confused.
“You’re been here before?”
“Yes, last year.”
He grins and shouts “Welcome back!”
He does a quick 180 and speeds off, one hand still waving.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities!