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]

Rhino Poaching Up 50 Percent In South Africa

Rhino poaching up 50% in South AfricaThe South African government has released statistics on the number of rhinos poached in that country last year, and the news isn’t especially good. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a record number of 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2012, representing a 50% increase over 2011 when 448 of the animals lost their lives to poachers.

Most of the rhino poaching took place inside Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s most popular destinations for visitors. The 7500-square-mile Kruger is one of the top safari destinations in the world and one of the best places to spot wild rhinos. But its remote and rugged location also makes it difficult to police and combat poaching. As a result, of the 668 rhinos killed last year, 425 were claimed inside the park.

Rhino poaching has been on the rise in recent years because of the increasing demand for their horns in parts of Asia. The horns are ground up into powder and used in traditional medicines in places like Vietnam and China, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support such uses. As the WWF report notes, rhino horns are used in such dubious remedies as hangover cures.

When poachers claim their prized rhino horns they typically shoot the animals with tranquilizers, knocking them unconscious for a time. While the creature slumbers, they then proceed to hack off their horns using sharp axes or knives to brutally accomplish their task. The rhino then bleeds to death from these wounds and their corpses are generally found by park rangers hours or days after they have been attacked.

These ever-increasing poaching numbers have put the rhino in jeopardy across Africa. Several species are critically endangered there as a result of these crimes.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]

Google To Fund Unmanned Drones To Hunt Poachers In Africa

Google funded drones will soon patrol the skies over AfricaAs part of their new Global Impact Awards, Internet search giant Google has pledged $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund in an effort to help fight illegal poaching in Africa and Asia. The funds will be used to create a sophisticated data network for tracking the movement of animals and will employ unmanned surveillance drones to hunt poachers in the field.

In their announcement of the grant, Google estimated that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth $7-$10 billion annually. Much of that value is comprised of the sale of ivory tusks harvested from elephants and the horns of rhinos, two animals that could face extinction if poaching is allowed to continue unabated.

Being a technology company, Google of course hopes to use sophisticated equipment to help combat the poachers. In addition to using drones to survey the landscape, the company is helping the WWF to develop new animal tags that are both cheaper and more advanced than what they’ve used in the past. The new tags would not only be able to track the movement of the creatures but also collect more information on their behavior. They’ll even be able to text updates and alerts on the location of the animals directly to the mobile phones of park rangers.

But it is the drones that hold the greatest potential for helping to fight the war against poachers. These tiny aircraft will be remotely piloted and feature a host of onboard technology that could prove useful in stopping the illegal harvesting of animals. With high-definition cameras, infrared sensors and built-in microphones, the aircraft will provide opportunities to observe and react to events taking place on the ground much more quickly than in the past.

Exactly which kind of drone system the WWF will use hasn’t been announced and it is likely that they’ll go through an evaluation and testing process before they purchase the aircraft. These will be unarmed UAV’s, however, so don’t look for any missile strikes to take place against the poachers. But then again, considering the Obama administration recently announced that poaching is a threat to U.S. national security interests, who knows exactly who will be in control of the drones over Africa and Asia.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force]

Is Illegal Poaching In Africa And Asia A Threat To US Security?

Illegal poaching is now seen as a potential threat to U.S. national securityThe U.S. intelligence community has been issued a new charge from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Organizations such as the CIA and NSA are being asked to assess the impact that illegal poaching across Africa and Asia is having on U.S. security interests abroad. This shift in policy indicates that the administration may be preparing to get tough on the underground black market that has been built on the bones of thousands of slaughtered animals over the past few years.

While meeting with a group of conservationists, environmentalists and ambassadors at the State Department last week, Clinton called for a unified strategy across a host of regions to help combat the illegal trade of elephant ivory and rhino horns. Those two items in particular have sparked the recent rise in poaching in Africa as suppliers look to fill the rising demand in parts of Asia. In launching this new initiative, the Secretary of State pledged $100,000 to help get new enforcement efforts off the ground, but perhaps more importantly was her announcement that the U.S. intelligence community would lend their talents to the fight for the first time.

At first glance, using U.S. intelligent assets to fight illegal poaching doesn’t necessarily seem like a good use of resources. But much of the poaching is done by rebel forces and local bandits who then use the funds to purchase better weapons and more advanced equipment. Well-armed and funded militias can be a direct threat to the stability of allies throughout Africa and Asia, where a number of fledgling governments are struggling with so many other important social and economic issues. Additionally, because poachers move across borders with impunity and ship their precious cargoes around the globe, the U.S. intelligence community seems best suited to track their movements. Their efforts could lead to not only finding the poachers while they are in the field, but also tracking down buyers in Asia who are funding these hunts.This move comes at a time when poachers are becoming more armed and using more sophisticated tactics. It is not uncommon for the illegal hunters to employ the use of helicopters, night-vision goggles and sophisticated weaponry when stalking their prey, and when confronted by local authorities, they are generally packing bigger and better guns than their foes. That has made combating the poachers extremely difficult, as they are often in and out of a game preserve before anyone knows they are there, and when they are caught in the act, it frequently turns into a deadly firefight.

Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement also takes illegal poaching out of the realm of conservation and puts it squarely into the national security arena. That is a definite change in tone over what we’ve seen out of past administrations, which generally seemed more focused on bigger international issues. Obama may consider poaching a big enough issue to take on in his second term, particularly since he has deep family ties in Kenya, another nation hit hard by poaching.

The Washington Post says that an estimated 10,000 elephants are killed each year in Tanzania alone, which gives you an indication of just how bad this problem has become. In some parts of Africa, rhinos have already been hunted to extinction and if this wholesale slaughter continues, the elephant may not be far behind. I don’t care if the U.S. government did have to come up with an excuse about national security to get more involved, I’m just happy they are taking steps to crack down on this awful trade.

[Photo credit: Kraig Becker]

Tanzania Planning To Sell 100 Tons Of Ivory

Elephants in TanzaniaTanzania has formally applied to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species requesting permission to sell off its massive stockpile of ivory. The East African country has more than 100 tons of ivory in storage and wants to conduct a one-time sale to China and Japan. Proceeds from the sale would help fund elephant conservation efforts throughout the country, but the plan has drawn sharp criticism from conservationists.

The sale of ivory is banned in most parts of the world but demand has been on the rise across parts of Asia over the past few years. That has led to a thriving black market, which is supplied by the illegal poaching of elephants throughout Africa. In the past decade, poachers have slaughtered thousands of elephants to harvest their tusks. As a result, the creatures are now endangered across much of the continent.

Tanzania’s stockpile is the result of tusks being collected following the natural deaths of elephants throughout the country, but conservationists say they still shouldn’t sell off all of that ivory. Critics of the plan fear that flooding the market with 100 tons of ivory would only serve to confuse consumers, many of who aren’t even aware that it is illegal to purchase in the first place. They say it sends the wrong message at a time when they are trying to educate people about poaching and the illegal ivory trade. Instead they recommend that Tanzania destroy its hoard of ivory, something that the country Gabon did earlier this year.

As if the sale of ivory wasn’t enough to draw the ire of conservationists, Tanzania has also said that it would like to remove elephants from the list of the most endangered species. That move would effectively reduce the level of protection given to the animals and allow for commercial big game hunting and even the trade of hides and live animals.

For a cash strapped country like Tanzania, the sale of this ivory would bring in millions of dollars in revenue. But if it further fuels the ivory trade and could potentially increases poaching, the price of the sale could ultimately be much higher than anyone wants to pay.