Ele­phants’ fu­ture in jeop­ardy

Cape Times - - OPINION -

WORLD Ele­phant Day yes­ter­day pro­vided an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to pon­der the fu­ture of this great, ma­jes­tic animal. The mes­sage is stark: the world’s ele­phant pop­u­la­tion is near­ing a crit­i­cal point and un­less dras­tic ac­tion is taken, they will, in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, dis­ap­pear from our wilds. And so shall part of hu­mankind’s her­itage.

The ivory trade is a ma­jor cause of de­clin­ing num­bers of wild ele­phants, as poach­ers con­tinue to hunt en­dan­gered species for their valu­able tusks.

In 1800 there may have been 26 mil­lion ele­phants in Africa. A cen­tury ago there were an es­ti­mated 5 mil­lion ele­phants on this con­ti­nent.

To­day, there are less than half a mil­lion. On av­er­age, at least 55 ele­phants are killed by poach­ers ev­ery day for their tusks. That’s one ev­ery 25 min­utes.

Their range has shrunk ex­po­nen­tially over the years, and they are now ex­tinct in the Mid­dle East, on the In­done­sian is­land of Java, in north­ern Africa and most of China.

Al­most ev­ery­where, th­ese no­mads are re­stricted to ever-de­creas­ing pock­ets of land.

The in­ter­na­tional trade in il­le­gal ivory is es­ti­mated to be worth more than R300 bil­lion each year.

Why are ele­phants im­por­tant to our lives and to na­ture? The Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ex­plains elo­quently: “Ele­phants are vi­tal to the web of life in Africa. As a key­stone species, they help bal­ance all the other species in their ecosys­tem, open­ing up for­est land to cre­ate fire­breaks and grass­lands, dig­ging to cre­ate wa­ter ac­cess for other an­i­mals, and leav­ing nu­tri­ents in their wake.

“Some­times called the mega-gar­den­ers of the for­est, ele­phants are es­sen­tial to the dis­per­sal of seeds that main­tain tree diver­sity.”

In South Africa, the num­ber of ele­phants killed by poach­ers has jumped by al­most a third, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures.

A to­tal of 67 ele­phants were poached from the Kruger Na­tional Park, and one in KwaZulu-Na­tal, last year. This is a leap from 46 ele­phants the year be­fore.

Com­pared with the num­bers of rhino poached for their horns in South Afrca – 1 054 in 2016 and 1 028 in 2017 – the num­bers look promis­ing, but it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore poach­ers turn their full at­ten­tion to ivory.

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