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The last trump of the elephant?

(Page 2 of 2)



So many adult elephants have been killed in recent years that the average tusk size has dropped from 21 pounds in the mid-1970s to 12 pounds today. Numbers don't tell the full story. ``Fifty-five percent of elephants shot are reproductive females,'' says Mr. Western. Moss says this hampers the survival skills of the remaining population. ``Elephant know-how is passed on primarily through teaching, not instinct. The slaying of mature females for their larger tusks destroys the respository of knowledge about such things as migratory routes, water sources, and mothering skills.''

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All but three of the 31 East Africa elephant habitats Douglas-Hamilton surveyed aerially showed vast declines. The few protected areas that showed increases are in Kenya and include the Masai Mara Reserve, Marsabit National Reserve, and Amboseili National Park, where Moss led the Amboseili Elephant Research Project for more than 12 years.

One of the most startling declines occurred in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park, where both Moss and Douglas-Hamilton spent time studying elephants, and where my own encounter with the night stalker occurred.

``I find the drop in Manyara particularly sad and startling,'' says Moss, ``not only because I knew those elephants by name, but because the park is small and very manageable in terms of its layout and its high tourism. If elephants can't be protected there, where can they be?'' She speculates that the poaching in Manyara is happening at night and ``within the system'' - suggesting that rangers and officials are involved in some way.

Conservationists agree that in the 36 African nations with elephant populations, park managers can be part of the poaching problem rather than the solution. ``Wardens and rangers are pitifully underpaid and underequipped,'' Moss writes. ``When the price of tusks is equivalent to an officer's yearly salary, the temptation to poach is overwhelming.''

Unfortunately, the temptation is growing - right alongside increasing ivory prices. In 1960, ivory sold at about $2.35 a pound. By 1978, it had climbed to $35, and this year it soared to $68. Says the AWF's McMeekin: ``Ivory is increasingly being purchased as a hedge against inflation, saved against the day it is no longer in supply and prices hit the sky.''

Civil wars in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Somalia have compounded the poaching problem. ``Not only are more automatic weapons readily available to facilitate poaching,'' says McMeekin, ``but in the turmoil of war, civil systems have broken down and law enforcement is lax.''

IUCN is now forming a special commission to review all aspects of ivory trade. Regulation options include (1)revising the current unverifiable quota system, asking each nation to determine how much ivory it can afford to export without threatening the its elephant population; (2)setting a minimum tusk size; (3)establishing management systems such as those in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where ``elephants are controlled like herds of cows - they're culled to keep them at a sustainable level, and limited hunting is allowed,'' says McMeekin; (4)identifying a benchmark population of some 200 elephants in various habitats, and pouring resources into the protection of them, rather than trying to oversee every corner of elephant country; and (5)encouraging external sanctions from countries that import ivory.

While respecting the rights of African nations to make their own decisions about use of their resources, Moss sees elephants as an international treasure, and hopes to prod people beyond Africa to do their part to ensure the survival of the species. ``Developed countries could help African conservation areas by contributing far more to their maintenance,'' she says. In addition, Moss says she ``would like to see a temporary moratorium on buying ivory by the American market - until the time comes when one can be sure that the tusk is either from an elephant killed legally, or one that has died of natural causes.''