Dawn breaks across the savanna of Tsavo-East National Park in Kenya, Africa. A family of twelve elephants stirs in the morning sun. The humidity begins to climb and a mother nudges her calf. The little one flaps his ears and trumpets, awake. At dusk and dawn, the iron-rich soils of this untamed land are illuminated – red. This day, the calf, his mother, and his family would have basked in the sun, and dusted themselves to stay cool; by dusk, they’d have become Kenya’s “red” elephants. Instead, their flapping ears and morning rumbles were silenced during a downpour of lead. Ambushed by poachers, blood from their ivory-stripped bodies poured into the ground on January 10, 2013.
The incident in Tsavo-East is one of the worst concentrated murders of elephants in Kenya since the 1980s, highlighting an alarming trend. Throughout the past decade, poaching incidences have risen, matching the increased ivory demand from the Asian black market. Ivory’s soaring profitability means poachers will, by any means necessary, invade any territory to gain access to elephants – and ultimately their ivory. On May 6, 2013, twenty-six elephants were slaughtered in an area known as the “Village of Elephants,” in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park – a protected sanctuary in the Central African Republic.
The attack coincides with the country’s current political unrest and was so significant, that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) evacuated its conservationists. As a result of the increased attacks in protected sanctuaries, many leading wildlife organizations, like the WWF and National Geographic, have called for increased attention to elephant conservation. On May 7, Richard Carol, the WWF-US Vice-President for Africa Programs released a statement: “Urgent help is needed to prevent a wholesale massacre of elephants. WWF is committed to supporting efforts to protect the irreplaceable natural heritage of the Central African Republic at this critical time.”
While Carol’s statement makes elephant conservation seems like an issue for the global community, as opposed to a local concern, Susan Gallagher of the St. Louis Zoo said, “You can help by contributing to an organization that supports elephant conservation in the wild, like the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), [by] supporting companies that realize the increased demand for palm oil is fueling destruction of the rainforest habitat of Asian elephants, [or by] writing letters to decision makers about the need to conserve elephants.”
In 1900, African elephant populations were believed to be near 10 million, while their Asian counterparts were believed to number around 100,000. By 1989, their numbers had plummeted – African elephant populations had decreased to approximately 600,000 and Asian elephant populations dwindled to around 50,000. These steep population declines led to the “Ivory Ban” of 1989, which was enacted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The ban outlawed the international sale or trade of ivory. Subsequently, populations began to stabilize and climb.
Today however, population estimates are lower still. Gallagher said, “Asian elephants are facing extinction in the wild. Between 35,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants are estimated to remain in the wild. [We] take seriously [our] responsibility to conserve this species – to improve the welfare and protect Asian elephants in Sumatra and other countries in Asia. We also support conservation and protection efforts to benefit African elephants in Kenya.”
African elephant populations are estimated around 450,000. Gallagher stated the St. Louis Zoo has provided over $1.5 million for elephant conservation to the IEF, in the last five years. It’s through contributions like this that Gallagher asserts, “[We] care about elephants, both here and in the wild, and [we] share a common vision – a vision that includes elephants in the world’s future forever.”