Is It Time to Say Good-Bye?
AN UNUSUAL war is heating up in Africa. It is not a dispute over territory, political ideals, or religious beliefs. Its toll in human lives, while tragic, has been tiny compared to most wars. Yet this battle has drawn the attention of nations around the world. It is a war over elephants.
The war pits park rangers and game wardens against poachers. Rangers and wardens are backed by the law, their governments, and conservationists. The poachers are backed by modern weaponry and driven by need and by greed—elephants’ tusks mean money, often wealth barely dreamed of in poorer countries. Both sides are shooting to kill. Why so much concern for elephants? Is the threat against them really all that serious?
Poaching Takes Its Toll
Well, consider: In the 1930’s there were some ten million elephants in Africa. By 1979 there were 1.3 million. Now, ten years later, that number has been cut in half. Estimates on the number of African elephants today stand at about 625,000. Why the sharp decline? Poaching is widely blamed. It is an ancient crime mushrooming in modern times, thanks to technology.
In times past, Africa’s poachers were tribesmen armed with bows and arrows or spears, apt to run away at the sight of an unarmed warden. Today, both wardens and poachers are armed, but the poacher often more so. Years of civil unrest in Africa have left in their wake a surplus of guns, readily available to criminals. Today’s poachers travel in gangs and hunt elephants with high-powered automatic weapons. Within minutes they can gun down several elephants, harvest the tusks by cutting off the front of the heads with a chain saw, and go on hunting. With ivory prices soaring worldwide, poachers can make thousands of dollars in one day; even their porters can make hundreds. As U.S.News & World Report puts it: “These are no local tribesmen but sophisticated, ruthless professionals running a high-stakes business.”
Business has been all too good. Since 1973 elephant populations have dwindled by 85 percent in Kenya, 53 percent in Tanzania, and 89 percent in Uganda. In fact, every year some 70,000 African elephants are slaughtered for their ivory. Both Zimbabwe and Kenya have recently authorized park wardens to shoot poachers on sight. The trouble is, the poachers shoot back—and with more firepower. They have killed both rangers and civilians quite willingly. In the fall of 1988, a gang of poachers attacked a game warden’s headquarters, tied up and beat the rangers, and then killed the park’s five white rhinoceroses, the last of their kind in any of Kenya’s parks. Of course, the poachers took only the horns. They left the huge carcasses of the rare beasts to rot.
Why Save the Elephants?
Rangers are dying in their attempt to defend the elephants. Meanwhile, an international conservation effort is getting under way to stave off the extinction that may well overtake the elephants before the century is over. But many may wonder, ‘Why all this fuss over elephants?’ Extinction, after all, is nothing new on this planet. Dinosaurs are a famous case in point. So why worry if elephants become extinct?
For many the answer lies in the majesty of the creature itself. It is a masterpiece of design. No doubt anyone who has watched a herd of elephants in the wild would feel a pang of loss at the prospect of their extinction. The way they train and protect their young, the amazing dexterity of their trunks, even their awesome size—all are sterling evidences of an incomparably wise Designer.
But there is more. Elephants also play a crucial role in the ecosystems in which they live. More than any creature other than man, the elephant changes and shapes its environment. Unlike man, however, elephants make the environment more habitable for fellow creatures. How? The key lies in their voracious appetite. An elephant eats some 300 pounds [140 kg] of vegetation every day!
In dense jungles, elephants pull down boughs and small trees, allowing more light to penetrate the dense leafy canopy. The light spurs the growth of vegetation near the ground, thus providing food for smaller animals, from forest buffalo and gorillas to bushpigs. On the broad African plains, or savannas, the elephants perform a similar service: Their foraging promotes a mixture of grasslands and woodlands, which sustain a wider variety of plant-eating creatures, from giraffes and zebras to gazelles and wildebeests, than would otherwise exist.
This complex chain of interdependence is fragile, though. It can be broken either when an area loses too many elephants or when too many of them are compressed into one area. Mankind does both—decimates elephants outside of parks and promotes overcrowding inside them. Thus, the plight of the elephants illustrates what is different about the extinctions that man causes: They are not part of a great purpose or design. Rather, they are caused by selfishness, with little regard for the consequences. They further demonstrate that imperfect and selfish man is not fit to manage this planet.
The Fight to Save Them
There are those who are fighting to stem the tide of slaughter. Conservation organizations and a dozen governments are launching last-ditch efforts to protect the elephant. But they don’t all agree on how to go about it. One group has decided not to seek a ban on the international ivory trade, feeling that such a ban would only force the traffic underground and make it still harder to control. After all, the ban imposed on the trade in rhinoceros horn has done nothing to slow the rhino’s headlong rush toward extinction. Nonetheless, in June 1989 several conservation groups called for an end to ivory trading. Three days later, U.S. president George Bush outlawed ivory imports. A global ban on ivory trading seems imminent.
One conservation group hopes to preserve only about 200,000 or 300,000 elephants, targeting a few dozen areas for protection. It hopes to curb the ivory trade by appeals to human self-interest, convincing local residents that elephants can bring more money to an area when poaching is curbed. The program has shown some signs of success.
But if the survival of the elephants depends on human self-interest, just how safe are they? Isn’t it human self-interest that threatens them in the first place? After all, the ivory trade continues to flourish, sacrificing these giant creatures to supply the world with seals, trinkets, and knickknacks—an estimated 80 percent of which are made from illegally obtained ivory. The government of Kenya has had to suspend or fire close to four dozen rangers and game wardens who allegedly could not resist the lure of all that money and secretly collaborated with the poachers. Who would deny that this generation has seen humanity reach new depths of self-interest? As mankind grows ever more self-obsessed, the world grows ever less secure.
Fortunately, the Bible offers a much better hope for our planet and its wildlife. It tells us that the Creator will soon restore the earth to the condition he originally intended for it—a global paradise, where peace will prevail. Man’s war on the elephants, and on all the wonders of the environment, will be over at last.—Isaiah 11:6-9.
[Picture Credit Line on page 16]
Courtesy of Clive Kihn