At the brink of extinction! Poaching of Elephants and Rhinos in Africa
Fr. Elias O. Opongo, SJ
On 30th April 2016 the Kenyan government set on fire 105 tons of ivory and 1 ton of rhino horn. The illicit ivory represented more than 4000 elephants that have been killed over the years. This is the largest stockpile of ivory that has ever been burned by any country. At a function attended by various heads of states and Holly Wood celebrities, President Uhuru Kenyatta made an important gesture meant to raise awareness about the urgency of protecting elephants and rhinos which are fast disappearing from the African continent. Africa loses between 30,000-35,000 elephants every year to poaching. In 1970s Africa had 1.3 million elephants but today only 500,000 are left. Among countries worst hit by poaching include: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Central Africa Republic, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroun and Democratic Republic of Congo. The years 2011, 2012 and 2013 saw the highest levels of poaching in Kenya since the poaching crisis in the 1980s.
Poaching is largely motivated by the ready market in the Asian countries and has become a very lucrative trade. The high ivory demand from Asia is motivated by the improved economic status, which in turn provide greater disposable income for luxury items such as daggers, cutlery, and pens made from ivory or rhino horns. China accounts for up to 70% of illegally traded ivory annually. The Far East culture has beliefs about the aphrodisiac properties of both ivory and rhino horns. Recent studies show that prices of elephant tusks in Beijing have tripled from $750 per kilogram in 2010 to 1kg-4kg at $2,100 per kilogram since 2014. In Tanzania a trader of ivory in a village would earn $200 a kilo but once the ivory gets to Dar es Salaam it could fetch up to $500 a kilo. There is a vicious cycle: high demand for ivory leads to increased poaching which brings money to bribe locals to collaborate.
Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si warns against human greed that threatens the balance in ecosystem. He notes: "Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable" (no. 36). There have been numerable reports corroborating the connection between ivory trafficking, the world underground black markets which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the corruption among Africa’s security forces, its ports, and customs offices as well as the insurgent groups and notorious criminal networks across the continent. There have been a number of reports that classify ivory as a major source of income for criminal syndicates and terrorist groups all over the world. Ivory trading is said to have surpassed diamonds, narcotics, small arms, or other commonly trafficked goods. These reports are verified by the record-breaking number of poached elephants and rhinoceroses, which undermines the ban on ivory poaching that was instituted in Africa in 1989, and continues to sustain the trends of exploitation and instability.
Poaching is thus identified as a lifeline for organized criminal gangs and rebel groups. According to a report by the Enough Project, Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group responsible for the killing and displacement of thousands of civilians in Uganda, DRC, and CAR, is behind many of the elephant killings. Hence, there is a noticeable mutation of poaching from a low-level opportunistic crime to a large-scale international criminal network with intermediary marketing of illicit poaching products up to international markets in Asia.
Given that the current rate of poaching is not sustainable in Africa, there is need for urgent action to stop poaching. The number of elephants being killed is more than those being born, and in a few years there will be no more elephants left. Pope Francis states in Laudato Si: "Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family." What is more critical is for states to address the rampant corruption among government and park officials, improve security in and around the parks, and lobby against the Asian markets.
Burning of illicit ivory from the Kenyan stockpiles.
 Bradley Anderson and Johan Jooste, "Wildlife Poaching: Africa's Surging Trafficking Threat," https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-3321797031/wildlife-poaching-africa-s-surging-trafficking-threat (retrieved 23 January 2016).