National Geographic : 1990 Nov
FROM THE PRESIDENT Will the ban on ivory trade save Africa's elephants? -EIAI~II YII~k-m11mi~nmlI~m I Zi - Fortune no more, elephant tusks buried by poachers are unearthed by Richard Leakey, Kenya's director of wildlife management. A few years ago the contra band would have soldfor as much as $300,000. But after last year's worldwide ban on ivory trade, the market has all but dried up-to the consternation of southern African coun tries thatfund wildlife research by selling ivory from culled surplus elephants. NSEARCH OF ELEPHANT TUSKS buried near Kenya's Tsavo National Park, we walked single file through knee-high grass. Flanked by machine-gun-toting rangers alert for poachers, I considered the chances of an ambush. Richard Leakey, noted anthropologist and director of wildlife manage ment for Kenya, led the way to the "tree with a broken branch," the tip he was following. Sure enough, after digging seven holes, we unearthed one and a half tons of elephant tusks-buried as long as ten months before. Richard's high tech surveillance and trained combat units, as well as the crash of ivory prices, have driven poachers underground. In Kenya people have been killed for shooting the country's rapidly disappearing elephants. Paradoxically, in southern Africa wildlife officials cull an overabundance of ele phants so that they and farmers can coexist. It's a conservation conundrum. Such dilem mas will be examined in a National Geo graphic EXPLORER film, "Africa: Playing God with Nature?" to be aired Sunday, December 16, at 9 p.m. on TBS. Poachers have slashed Africa's elephant population from 1.3 million in 1979 to about 610,000 today. Drastic measures have resulted. In October 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) took action that virtually outlawed trade in ivory. Prices have since plummeted, from $100 to as low as two dollars a pound. GILBERT M. GROSVENOR Kenya, its elephants decimated, voted an enthusiastic "yes" to the ivory ban, opposed by Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozam bique, South Africa, Zambia, and Malawi. In Kruger National Park, a South Africa showcase, elephants are culled to prevent overpopulation. The sale of that ivory has provided about $200,000 a year for elephant research. "Banning ivory will severely restrict our program," says Anthony Hall-Martin, a Kruger expert. "Richard Leakey's crusade may be appropriate for Tsavo, but it is disas trous in South Africa and Zimbabwe." "Eliminating poaching and destroying ivory's value are only short-term solu tions," Richard cautions. "Unless we can make wildlife conservation profitable for all peoples, we cannot save our elephants for the future." There is no profit when elephants wander off large private holdings, where they enjoy sanctuary, to ravage surrounding small farms. Fences may be the an swer, Richard thinks. I met one lean, leathery Kenyan rancher, Gifford Powys, who agrees. "I'm building a stone wall four feet wide, four to five feet high along my property line," he said, to contain the elephants that roam his ranch. Zimbabwe supports its wildlife with hunting fees. But Robin McIntosh hopes to attract nonhunting visitors to the 22 major wildlife species on his cattle ranch, only 30 minutes from Harare, the nation's capital. "We'll offer lodges, walking tours, everything for the tourist," he says. While the elephant debate continues, all agree that elephants must earn their keep and be fenced within sanctuaries. With Africa's human population dou bling every 20 to 25 years, the day of the free-roaming elephant is all but over.