Fa­tal ex­trac­tion: the trou­ble with hip­pos’ teeth

The Guardian - G2 - - Shortcuts - Dr Ben Gar­rod

It seems al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble that the de­sire for an ivory or­na­ment or piece of jew­ellery jus­ti­fies the slaugh­ter of a ma­jes­tic ele­phant, but as their pop­u­la­tions con­tinue to crash, the ever-hun­gry black mar­ket has be­come cre­ative in or­der to sat­isfy its greed. Now, ivory hunters are set­ting their sights on ev­ery­thing from arc­tic nar­whals to fos­sil mam­moths. But one un­ex­pected vic­tim of this bar­baric prac­tice is the hum­ble hip­popota­mus. A new study says that a rise in de­mand for hip­pos’ teeth is threat­en­ing the mam­mal with ex­tinc­tion.

In many ways, it takes a lot of ef­fort to kill an ele­phant. They are legally well pro­tected in most coun­tries where they range and in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions are clear. Also, smug­gling large tusks in­ter­na­tion­ally is highly con­spic­u­ous. Hip­pos of­fer a cheaper and, in many ways, “eas­ier” ivory op­tion. The sim­ple truth is that they are not high on the pri­or­ity list of the in­ter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity. Find a group of wild-liv­ing

African ele­phants and, of­ten, they will ei­ther be tracked with ra­dio col­lars or will be the fo­cus of longterm con­ser­va­tion re­search, in­ten­sive eco­tourism or de­ter­mined law-en­force­ment ef­forts. Not so with hip­pos. Un­like their fa­mous sa­van­nah cousins, they don’t come with a pro­tec­tive hu­man en­tourage, mean­ing poach­ers can take their time. Ad­di­tion­ally, they are not pro­tected es­pe­cially well at ei­ther a na­tional or in­ter­na­tional level.

Most ele­phant pop­u­la­tions are listed un­der the high­est level (ap­pen­dix I) of the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but hip­pos are listed un­der ap­pen­dix II of this multi­na­tional treaty, mean­ing some trade is pos­si­ble. The prob­lem here is that not only is it im­pos­si­ble to guar­an­tee that a hippo tooth is legally sourced but that over­all quo­tas are of­ten mas­sively ex­ceeded. We have cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where “some” hip­pos can be shot, but we have few ef­fec­tive ways to reg­u­late the trade, leav­ing it wide open to abuse.

Hav­ing lived in Africa and worked in front­line con­ser­va­tion, I have seen first-hand that in the name of art, no ivory-bear­ing beast is safe. I have heard the sto­ries and seen the bod­ies of hip­pos sprayed with ma­chine-gun fire, mouths open, bloody and tooth­less. Peo­ple are work­ing to stop this and many wildlife author­i­ties do what they can, but un­til there is a real change in the de­mand for ivory, the hippo has joined the ele­phant in be­ing in desperate need of

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