The last trump of the elephant?
MY cabin stood beside a water pool, and each morning I awoke to the sound of an elephant family snorting and spraying and splashing. During my several-week stay, Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park was fairly replete with elephants: some on the move, others standing on their hind legs feeding on high acacia branches, others camouflaged by tree shadows and looking like so many boulders. One night a young bull faced off with our Land Rover in the middle of the road. We stopped and turned off the engine and lights. The huge black specter walked toward us, knocking his tusks against the vehicle as he glided the tip of his snout over the hood and windshield. The sound of his heavy, hollow breathing filled the air. Suddenly, he turned and pounded down the road in front of us.Skip to next paragraph
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That was in 1983. On a return trip to Manyara in March, I expected similar close encounters. There were none. In fact, I saw but a handful of elephants, always in the distance. The population had dropped from 485 to 181 - just in the last two years.
The African elephant may become a memory before this century closes.
Studies show devastation on the order of 50 percent throughout the continent in only 10 years, as the ivory trade thrives in the shadow of corruption and upheaval. But a plan is taking shape that would do for the elephant what was done for the whale.
Today marks the start of the ``Year of the Elephant,'' a campaign to educate Americans (who purchase 30 percent of the world's carved ivory) about the elephant's plight.
``At least 80 percent of ivory on the market today comes from poached elephants - even if it comes with all the correct papers certifying it as legal,'' says researcher Cynthia Moss, author of a captivating new book, ``Elephant Memories.'' Ms. Moss, who spent the last 20 years in East Africa studying elephant behavior, is a senior research adviser to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and was on hand at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., yesterday to help launch the foundation's Year of the Elephant project.
The campaign is a direct response to the findings of a new study by the well-known elephant specialist, Lain Douglas-Hamilton, for whom Moss worked as a research assistant when she first went to East Africa. The study focuses on elephants in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where the numbers plunged from 253,947 to 108,615 between 1977 and 1987.
``The figures are devastating,'' says AWF's vice-president, Diana McMeekin. ``The working estimate is that there are now 700,000 elephants on the continent, compared with 1.5 million 10 years ago.'' David Western, chairman of the Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), says Mr. Douglas-Hamilton has shocked people ``who didn't want to believe that the offtake was so great in Kenya.'' The survey showed that in Kenya, whose second-largest industry is wildlife tourism, the elephant population dropped 57 percent in protected areas and 73 percent in unprotected areas during the last 10 years.
While drought and human encroachment on elephant habitat have contributed to the creature's demise, the ivory trade is the most acute threat. The IUCN reports that 825 tons of raw ivory, with a market value of $50 million, were traded in 1986. The raw ivory, sold mainly in Asia, was converted into carved ivory worth about $500 million on the world market. The death toll among elephants for the trade: 89,000 - at least 80 percent (71,200) of them poached.