THE image of a bull elephant, billowing his ears and trumpeting a challenge, symbolizes nature's magnificence. But if that image is to survive in fact, not just in our imaginations, quick action is needed. Wildlife experts estimate that 800,000 of Africa's elephants were slaughtered for their tusks in the past decade. Some 700,000 remain. They're being shot at the rate of 70,000 a year; another 10,000 die because older elephants, teachers and protectors of the young, are lost.
It's not stretching things very far to say that the Western consumer who buys carved ivory in a New York boutique is helping pull the trigger in the African bush. Each year tons of poached ivory is secreted out of places like Tanzania and Uganda to the Far East for carving, then off to retailers in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In the process, the value of the ivory multiplies a hundred times. It is estimated that 80 percent of the ivory being sold today comes from poaching.
Clearly, Africa's nations have a crucial role in saving the elephant from extinction. In Kenya, elephants have made a comeback in a few protected wildlife reserves. And a concerted effort by the Tanzanian government and international wildlife organizations has arrested the killing of elephants in the giant Selou reserve. But the picture in most of Africa is bleak, with outmanned and outgunned rangers unable to hold off poachers.
But Africa is only one front in this battle. As long as the market expands, poaching will flourish. Africans who do the actual killing get only a tiny cut of the profits. But what they get can be a huge supplement to sparse incomes.
If Americans would simply stop buying ivory trinkets, the world market would shrink by 30 percent. Consumer boycotts are, therefore, a promising tactic, and wildlife groups like the Washington-based African Wildlife Fund are going to push that approach during the coming Year of the Elephant observance.
In the long term, development of better methods for marking ivory - employing, perhaps, such sophisticated techniques as irradiation - could help control the commerce in poached tusks. At present, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between illegal and legal ivory.
Legislation may play a part, too, though outright bans on the import of ivory could alienate African countries that are making an honest effort to enforce a limited, legal harvest. Those countries sorely need the foreign exchange a legitimate ivory trade could bring.
To save the elephant, cooperation and understanding will have to subdue greed and indifference. In that sense, this battle is crucial for humanity, too.