JOHANNESBURG — Hundreds of vultures in Namibia died after feeding on an elephant carcass that poachers had poisoned. Poachers in Zimbabwe used cyanide to kill dozens of elephants for their ivory tusks. In Mozambique three lions died after eating bait infused with a crop pesticide.
Poisoning Africa’s wildlife is an old practice, but conservationists fear such incidents are escalating in some areas, saying relatively easy access to agricultural chemicals and the surging illegal market for animal parts are increasing pressure on a number of already beleaguered species. The threat is compounded by the indiscriminate nature of killing with poison, in which a single contaminated carcass can take down a range of animals, particularly scavengers such as vultures.
This month, a continent-wide database was launched to gather data on wildlife poisoning and better understand a phenomenon that has been widely documented in southern Africa, where a reported 70 lions have been fatally poisoned in the last 18 months, according to managers. While the African Wildlife Poisoning Database lacks records from underreported areas including Central Africa, it dates to 1961 and lists nearly 300 poisoning incidents in 15 African countries that killed more than 8,000 animals from dozens of species, including leopards, hyenas, impalas, cranes and storks.
“It’s still a big work in progress,” said Darcy Ogada, a Kenya-based database coordinator and assistant director of Africa programs at The Peregrine Fund, a conservation group. The goal, Ogada said, is to get governments to pay more attention to the “underground world” of wildlife poisoning that also threatens livestock, water sources and people who eat meat from birds and other poisoned animals.
In 2013, between 400 and 600 vultures died after feeding on the poisoned carcass of an elephant that was killed for its ivory in Namibia’s Zambezi area, said Andre Botha, a poisoning database manager and special projects manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African group.
“This is the highest number of vultures killed in a single poisoning incident that we have on the database to date,” Botha said.
Some of Africa’s species of vulture, whose body parts are also precious in traditional medicine in parts of the continent, are listed as critically endangered. South Asian vulture populations are a fraction of what they were, largely because of feeding on carcasses of livestock treated with diclofenac, a veterinary drug that is toxic to vultures. Government bans on the drug, however, helped level those declines.
African lions are in peril partly because of human encroachment on habitats and the poaching of animals for food, which deprives lions of prey. The killing of lions by poison, once largely a result of livestock owners trying to protect their herds, appears to reflect growing local and Asian demand for lion claws, bones and other parts used in traditional medicine, according to Botha.
“What we see now is people purposely going out and targeting lions,” he said. Some 70 were poisoned in southern Africa since last year, Botha said. The database reports a total of 51 lion poisonings between 1980 and 2015.
In July, officials in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park on the border with South Africa found poacher tracks, bait laced with poison, and the carcasses of three lions and a hyena, according to the Peace Parks Foundation, which develops cross-border conservation areas. It said authorities believe poachers used a substance containing the pesticide aldicarb, which South Africa banned because of its environmental threat.
Another pesticide, carbofuran, is the “abused product of choice” in countries including Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya, said Tim Snow, a South African conservationist who helps train southern African rangers in how to deal with poisoning sites by wearing surgical gloves for their own safety and collecting samples for study in a laboratory.
Sign up for the Morning Brief
Delivered bright and early weekday mornings, this email provides a quick overview of top stories and need-to-know news.
He said poachers in Zimbabwe have killed more than 90 elephants since 2015 by poisoning water sources with cyanide, a chemical used to extract gold from ore. Authorities have seized cyanide stashes from vehicles at police roadblocks and a warehouse in Bulawayo city, Snow said.
Educating communities about the environmental fallout from poisoning wildlife is key, said Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa. Banning poisons, he said, has a limited impact because “there’s an unlimited supply and variety of poisons that can be used.”
“Trophy,” a documentary that explores the commodification of threatened and endangered African species, which premiered earlier this month at the Quad Cinema in New York City, is enough to have Cecil the Lion rolling over in his grave.
While the directors should be commended for putting the issue in the spotlight, it feels more like an attempt by the trophy hunting industry to save face following the public backlash after the tragic death of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015. And it’s no wonder, since the movie’s narrative unfolds after the directors attend the Safari Club International’s (SCI) annual hunter’s convention.
They drank the Kool-Aid.
To appease the public, the trophy hunting industry claims that without it there would be no money in Africa for conservation. In the movie, well-heeled American trophy hunters are the unsung heroes whose money is helping to save Africa’s magnificent animals from the bad-guys—local poachers driving these animals to extinction. It’s hard to stomach the hypocrisy—American trophy hunters think their money makes killing ok.
The idea that it doesn’t is not broached by directors who promise to tell both sides of the story with critical examination. The movie never considers that legal trophy hunting is one of the reasons that Africa’s Big Five face extinction in the first place and that legal trophy hunting fuels poaching.
Drifting down the Zambezi in Zimbabwe, I overheard two American men swapping hunting stories.
“First shot got him in the shoulder,” a white man in his late sixties explained to his friend. “Second hit him right in the side of the head!” Pointing at his temple, he passed his phone with a picture. The animal in question was a dead crocodile.
Crocodiles are easy to find on this part of the Zambezi: lying in the sun on the banks of the river, boats can float just a few feet away. And given that they are motionless for most of the time, not hard to shoot, I imagine.
The second American showed his pal a picture of a Cape Buffalo he had killed, and planned to have shoulder mounted. He complained he couldn’t afford the $19,000 (£14,500) Zimbabwe demands for the licence to kill an elephant. His buffalo cost him $8,000 (£6,100).
“Are they saying an elephant is worth more than two buffalo?” he lamented. “I saw hundreds of elephants today. Far too many. You have to see it here to realise. In California they are saying these animals are endangered!”
The first man’s wife then talked of the thrill she gets at the kill, discussing how different calibres of bullet explode the vital organs of African wildlife. I left to look at the hippos watching from the river.
But, curiously, I have felt obliged to consider the ethics of big game hunting at home in London in the last few months.
The corporate values of family brand Arsenal do not sit easily with pay-to-view videos of hunters shooting animals for fun, and after a couple of days of hostile publicity, Kroenke ordered his channel to stop showing the killing of some big game.
But both sides in the hunting debate claim they are the true guardians of animal welfare.
Supporters of African trophy hunting, including some in very high places – two of President Trump’s sons are avid big game hunters – argue that a ban on hunting would harm wildlife and local people.
It would stop much needed revenue reaching some of Africa’s poorest communities, discourage conservation and cut funds for wildlife management that would make it easier for poachers to operate, they say.
Opponents counter that little of the profit from trophy hunting money ends up in the communities where it takes place. They say poachers use legal hunting as cover for their illegal activities, and argue that there are more efficient and humane ways to support the welfare of southern Africa’s animals and people.
I was travelling in Zimbabwe and neighbouring Botswana last month – two countries with opposing policies towards big game hunters. Hunting is still big business in Zimbabwe, as the rich Americans on the Zambezi demonstrate, but since 2014 it has been completely banned in Botswana.
The difference in approach between Botswana and its neighbours – South Africa, Namibia and Zambia also allow trophy hunting – was brought dramatically home to me in the country’s glorious Chobe National Park.
In the late afternoon, I watched a herd of around 600 Cape Buffalo snake its way down to the Chobe River that marks the boundary with Namibia. It was mesmerising to see these majestic animals following each other, nose to tail, across the water.
Then my guide pointed out two vehicles on the horizon, across the river. “Hunters,” he explained, simply. Through the binoculars we could see six men with rifles. Apparently oblivious to the risk, the buffalo continued to cross the border towards them. Later, shots would be heard.
In a move interpreted as a direct challenge to the wildlife policies of other southern African nations, Botswana’s President Ian Khama is marching his country towards a new model of African tourism: “low impact/high value”.
Botswana believes that by protecting its animals and minimising humankind’s footprint on the natural world, it can turn the country into an exclusive tourist destination that brings in far more than it loses from the ban on hunting.
Botswana is home to more than a third of Africa’s dwindling elephant population, and – since the hunting ban – these intelligent animals have increasingly sought refuge there.
The concentration of elephants is a huge draw for tourists but, as predicted by opponents of the ban, it is also a huge temptation for less scrupulous hunters and poachers.
Botswana’s answer is to make the country a hostile environment for those who want to harm the wildlife.
Military bases have been moved to the borders of the national parks. Armed patrols on foot and in the air are ready, if necessary, to kill people coming to kill animals. Some poachers have been shot dead.
The hunting ban doesn’t just apply to rich trophy hunters.
It also limits or outlaws the shooting of game by local people for food or to protect crops and livestock. The Botswana government believes if there is any legal shooting of animals, the big poaching syndicates and illegal hunting operations will use that as cover for their activities.
In Mabele village, close to the Namibian border, I watched a man mixing an extraordinary cocktail: crushed tabasco chillies, elephant dung and engine oil. With a flourish he set the contents on fire and stood back to admire his handiwork.
“That is supposed to stop an elephant trampling my crops,” Chibeya Longwani told me, pointing at the ash in the tin.
He spread it along the sides of his field, beside plastic chairs, broken electric fans and beer crates, as instructed by the Ministry of Agriculture.
“They said that bees stop elephants too,” Mr Longwani said. “But they don’t have the boxes at the moment.” His frustration was obvious.
As well as advice on deterring elephants, farmers can claim compensation from the government if wild game does damage property. But if they kill the animals, they are likely to get nothing.
To police the new approach, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks has recruited an army of Special Wildlife Scouts, operating in rural villages. Their job, for example, includes ensuring families don’t take more than the five guinea fowl they are allowed each day, and that farmers are honest in their compensation claims.
It is a nationwide exercise in social engineering – trying to change the ancient relationship between the rural population and the wild animals around them. The government believes the long-term rewards justify the rules. Many farmers remain unconvinced.
For those tourists coming to Botswana with cameras rather than guns though, the policies have created an utterly captivating wild landscape teeming with amazing African animals and birds. And “elite travellers” are prepared to pay big money for the privilege of seeing it.
During the high season, a single room in one of the most exclusive lodges on the Okovango Delta can cost more than $5,000 (£3,830) a night, equivalent to the price of a Namibian licence to shoot a single leopard.
Many tourist lodge operators work in partnership with local villages. I encountered one lodge where 10% of the business turnover will soon go to the community nearby. Villagers often have a direct say in development plans.
International tourism is expected to bring in $210m (£160m) to Botswana this year, rising to $370m (£280) by 2021 – more than trophy hunters spend across the whole of southern Africa.
Many in Zimbabwe, by contrast, see hunting as an inextricable part of Africa’s cultural heritage, believing that, if done sustainably and responsibly, it can be a valuable addition to the region’s economy and wildlife management.
The walking guides who take tourists into the bush there aren’t allowed to operate until they have passed a state exam that includes shooting an elephant and a buffalo. I asked one guide how he had felt about doing it. “It depends if you like hunting,” was his enigmatic reply.
The Zimbabwean government argues that 75% of proceeds from trophy hunting goes towards wildlife preservation and anti-poaching initiatives.
The recent Great Elephant Census project suggests Zimbabwe’s elephant population has fallen 11% in a decade, with poaching and illegal hunting threatening to wipe out whole herds in parts of the country.
It is hard to picture yourself on the fence when it comes to issues of wildlife conservation and hunting for sport. The two seem mutually exclusive, and advocates for each could hardly be blamed for believing they could never see the other side’s point of view.
Which makes the heart-churning new documentary “Trophy” eye-opening, depressing and enlightening all at once. It shows how these issues are inextricably intertwined, because of both the costs of preserving species that face extinction, and the profit motives of the multi-billion-dollar global hunting industry whose clients will pay big bucks to bag a prized specimen of lion, elephant, rhino or other magnificent creature.
And yes, it forces the viewer to reflect on the desires of both sides: those for whom hunting is a God-given right and all God’s creatures under Man’s dominion to do with as we please; and those for whom the death of an animal is intolerable, and who will take to the streets or to social media to target hunters. (Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who hunted and killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, became an international pariah who received death threats.)
But there are people in the middle, trying to find a way to protect species in an imperfect, capitalist world where, for example, bans on the sale of rhino horn (enacted to protect rhinos from poachers) have actually increased poaching, decimating the species in just a few years.
“Trophy” (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival) follows several figures pursuing their personal goals involving animals, including: Philip Glass, a Texas rancher who is closing in on fulfilling a hunter’s “Big Five,” if the lion’s recent addition to the endangered species list doesn’t trip him up first; John Hume, a former property developer who has invested millions to raise rhinos and harvest their horns, to keep the animals from being slaughtered by poachers; Christo Gomes, who breeds exotic animals on his South African ranch, appealing to the tastes of his wealthy hunter clients; and Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean wildlife officer who must act like King Solomon among the local community whose livestock and family members are preyed upon by wild animals.
If you think you know these people by these brief descriptions, you are wrong. Moore uses harsh “scared straight” tactics against the children of suspected poachers in the dead of night; Gomes cries when thinking about the animals he raises, only to be killed by the clients who pay his bills; Hume goes to court, fighting to repeal South Africa’s ban on rhino horn sales and avoid financial ruin; and Glass visibly mourns the passing of an elephant, which takes a long, long time to expire from the bullets he has fired into its body.
Director Shaul Schwarz and co-director Christina Clusiau do not pull their punches when showing the glee with which a beer-swigging hunter slaughters an alligator dragged out of its pond. “It’s party time!” he says after firing his rifle at point-blank range. Nor with the Youtube commenter upset over Cecil’s death, who happens to be wearing a leopard print scarf.
As each person rationalizes their thinking and behavior for the camera, we are left questioning our own moral compass, and where animals fall within it.
One of the most moving sentiments is from a taxidermist, Travis Courtney, who rues that the destruction of habitat forces animals into contact with people. “They always come second,” he says, putting the finishing touches on a stuffed lion.
“This might do justice to them,” he says of his handiwork. “At least that is what I aim for. So if they do become extinct one day, it’s something to show the world what they look like.”
Exceptionally well-photographed, “Trophy” captures the haunting beauty of these threatened animals, whether roaming free in a park beset by poachers or behind chain-link fences, oblivious to the safari that awaits.
The film, strangely, inspires something close to hope — despite the poaching statistics and depressing bloodlust — because, as evoked by the film’s participants in so many different ways, the value of these animals is calculated far beyond mere currency, despite the monetary impulses on view. As anti-poaching activist John Hume observes about harvesting rhino horns rather than slaughtering the animals outright, “Who would kill the hen that lays the golden egg?”
“Trophy” (distributed by The Orchard) opens in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif., on Friday, September 8, and in cities nationwide beginning September 20. (Get tickets.) The film will be broadcast on CNN in 2018. 109 mins. This film is not rated.
To watch a trailer for “Trophy” click on the video player below.
An Argentinian man has been killed in Namibia after he was trampled by an elephant, local media report. The Namibia Press Agency said the hunter, identified as 46-year-old Jose Monzalvez, was killed on Saturday afternoon in a private wildlife area 70…
Court drops charges against professional hunter over Cecil the lion
Richard Cooke, the professional hunter accused of killing Xanda, also reportedly killed the cubs’ brother in 2015.
Mr Cooke handed Xanda’s electronic collar back to researchers.
Andrew Loveridge, from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, told The Daily Telegraph: “I fitted it last October. It was monitored almost daily and we were aware that Xanda and his pride was spending a lot of time out of the park in the last six months, but there is not much we can do about that.”
Cecil the lion’s cubs
He added: “Richard Cooke is one of the ‘good’ guys. He is ethical and he returned the collar and communicated what had happened.
“His hunt was legal and Xanda was over 6 years old so it is all within the stipulated regulations.”
Cecil was found beheaded and skinned near Hwange National Park in 2015 and authorities said Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minneapolis, paid a $55,000 (£35,000) bribe to wildlife guides to allow him to shoot the lion with a crossbow.
He was forced to abandon his dental practice for weeks amid the outcry over the killing
Two forest rangers have been killed by a violent mob in a Liberian rainforest after discovering a community illegally settling and hunting in the park, according to authorities.
“They ambushed them using single-barrel shot guns,” Darlington Tuagben, managing director of Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority told the Liberian Observer. One of the rangers died at the scene, while the other died in hospital a day after the attack. The ranger “was beaten and tortured to death”, said Tuagben. Four other rangers were hospitalised.
“This kind of behaviour is no longer in any civilised world including Liberia. It is barbaric and unacceptable,” said Tuagben.
The attack took place just one month after a ranger was tortured by other illegal settlers in the forest.
Sapo National Park is home to a variety of endangered species, including elephants, pangolins, pygmy hippos and western chimpanzees. It is one of west Africa’s most intact forest ecosystems.
The park was pillaged by poachers, loggers and miners during the Liberian civil war from 1990 to 2003, and the government and the United Nations have since implemented major resettlement programmes and PR campaigns to raise support for conservation. Farming, logging, construction, hunting, and human settlement have been illegal since 2003.
Despite conservation efforts by the government and NGOs, illicit activities inside the park have soared in the last decade. More than 1,000 people occupy Sapo illegally, according to Tuagben, who told the Liberian Observer that people remain hostile to park authorities and those trying to protect it. He said he has requested that the police deploy armed men to work alongside forest rangers.
If you would like to contact us with a story about elephant conservation and wildlife rangers, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
On April 19 of this year, five major wildlife protection groups petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) as an endangered species. As the petition asserted, “the giraffe has suffered a major reduction in population size across its range primarily due to habitat loss, commercial overutilization, and severe poaching, and such decline continues unabated.”
If the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees to list the giraffe, a set of legal tools will become available to protect this iconic species. But how would listing in the U.S. help this African mammal, whose population numbers in the wild have dipped below 100,000?
EXTINCTION IS FOREVER
While extinction can be a natural process, the current rate of extinction is anything but. Scientists estimate that at least 99 out of 100 species extinctions in the world today are the result of human action. Although people rarely intend to drive species into oblivion, as with the giraffe, they do so through the destruction of habitat, poaching and legal hunting. As the petition notes, “[g]iraffes once occupied much of the savanna and savanna woodlands of Africa…. [It] has undergone a 36 to 40 percent population decline over the past 30 years.”
More than a century ago, scientists began to notice the disappearance of once prominent species around the world. TheAmerican passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet and the Great Auk—once well-established in North America—disappeared. Other species like the American bison and many kinds of whales had once played central roles in important ecosystems but had been reduced to small remnant populations.
“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
What would you say to a child who saw a giraffe in a book and asked where giraffes lived? Would you be comfortable saying they’re all gone?
ROOTS OF REGULATION
In 1964, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) began tracking the conservation status of species on its “Red List.” Although the IUCN provides information only about the status of species, this is the first step in helping to limit extinction because it allows conservation efforts to be directed where they’re most needed.
A few years later in the United States, the federal government began keeping an official list of species in danger of extinction—what we call endangered species—and species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future—threatened species.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed in 1973, goes further than just identifying imperiled species. Under its terms, listed species are protected from actions “authorized, funded or carried out” by the federal government that may jeopardize their continued existence or adversely affect their essential habitat. Species members are also protected from direct harm by any person. Commerce in species protected by the ESA is generally a crime.
The purpose of the ESA is the “conservation” of protected species. In practice, that means bringing the species back to the point where it no longer requires the protection of the ESA. The law’s goal is not to preserve tiny populations on the brink of extinction but to recover species populations that are resilient enough to survive the bad luck which is so often part of living on the planet.
Listing is the public, administrative process whereby a species can become entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act. It centers around one question: Is this creature or plant in danger of extinction? At the listing stage, the federal government can consider only scientific evidence in making its decision. Anyone can initiate the listing process via petition.
There are now 1,382 species of animals listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered; 711 live largely within the borders of the United States. For these species, the federal Endangered Species Act can help preserve habitat, require “consultation” on projects that need federal approval and make most hunting illegal.
AMERICAN LISTING FOR AN AFRICAN ANIMAL
The giraffe, of course, is not native to the United States. How would ESA listing help it? The habitat destruction and overharvesting that threaten the giraffe aren’t happening within U.S. borders.
The answer lies in the role the United States plays in buying and selling giraffe parts. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database, over the past decade Americans imported more than 21,000 giraffe bone carvings, more than 3,000 skin pieces and 3,744 hunting trophies. If many people want giraffe parts, the demand can be too high for survival of the species. Heightened demand for giraffe products can encourage people to hunt illegally—for example, taking more giraffes than limits allow or hunting in places where it is not permitted.
Around the world, markets for species parts are sometimes driven by traditional uses—things like carving ivory or using certain animal parts in traditional medicines. New uses fuel demand too; think of newly wealthy businessmen in Vietnam consuming rhino horn mixed with water or alcohol to show how rich they are. Sometimes, the two can converge: An increase in consumption of shark fin soup has been tied to a traditional celebration dish being served by more people as China’s middle class grew.
Listing on the ESA would require the federal government to limit imports of giraffe parts into the United States and would therefore help curtail global demand. The ESA cannot ensure habitat protection or require other countries to take affirmative conservation action to protect the giraffe. But listing in the U.S. would limit one important threat in which Americans do play a role.
It’s been a very stressful time for one of the mountain gorilla groups we monitor every day in Rwanda’s Volcanoes mountains. Isabukuru’s group faced the death of its leader late last month, and yesterday our trackers found one of the youngsters from this group caught in a snare.
Although no gorillas in the groups we protect had been caught in snares since November 2015, Fossey Fund staff have concerned about recent increases in the numbers of snares seen, many of which have been close to the gorilla groups. When our trackers arrived in Isabukuru’s group yesterday and noticed immediately that 3-year-old Fasha was not in the group, they began a search for him and found a deactivated snare nearby.
Soon they located Fasha by himself, with a long piece of rope around his ankle, attached to a bamboo branch. They were able to detach the branch, but the rope was wound tightly around his foot. This meant that a veterinary intervention would be necessary to have the rope removed, which requires sedation, and plans were made for this to happen today. Our trackers then waited in the forest for the rest of the day, until Fasha was able to move back to his group, since he was extremely stressed out and initially seemed to be going in the wrong direction.
Today the intervention was conducted with Gorilla Doctors veterinarians, and included nine staff from the Fossey Fund, as well as Rwanda park authorities (RDB). Initially, Fasha was located close to silverback Kubaha, who has taken over the group since former leader Isabukuru died on March 26. Fasha was one of three youngsters who were receiving special protection from Isabukuru, since they all had mothers who had transferred out of the group. Luckily, Kubaha has so far taken over this protective role.
As our trackers arrived in the group, they found Fasha and others still in their night nests. When Fasha fell asleep after being sedated with a dart, our trackers were able to chase the other gorillas and keep them away during the intervention. The rope had become very tight on Fasha’s now-swollen left ankle, showing that he or other gorillas had tried to remove it, and he’d also lost a few teeth, probably while trying to bite the snare off. But the rope was successfully removed, the wound cleaned and antibiotics given, all within about 30 minutes. After resting for a short while, Fasha started moving with the group and all were feeding calmly.
Trackers play critical role
The Fossey Fund’s gorilla trackers and researchers play a critical role in this kind of situation, since it is our daily following of every gorilla in each group we protect that allows us to notice when something is wrong and to make experienced decisions in handling the situation. If our trackers had not noticed Fasha was missing, had not been able to locate him, and had not made sure he returned to his group, it is likely the outcome would have much more serious.
Thanks to support from all of our donors, we are able to provide this kind of daily, intensive protection for all of the gorillas we monitor. Help us continue this work by donating here.