Not exactly a good year, but …
As many retrospective summary articles are being written at this time of year, I thought I would contribute what I think were the highs and lows for wildlife conservation during this past year.
I thought 13 points in each category would be appropriate, as it was 2013 after all….
Let’s begin with the low points first, and here they are in no particular order:
- This was one of the worst years in history in terms of the number of elephants poached. Despite the existence of monitoring programmes, the numbers of elephants killed for the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory (largely from China) have not been adequately tallied, but estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000. If we accept the high number, that would mean that in 2013 alone, 20% of all remaining African elephants were killed. Tanzanian elephants seem especially affected, and a recent announcement indicates that the Selous Game Reserve now might have as few as 13,000 elephants, down from 55,000 in 2007. No African elephant range state, except perhaps South Africa (!), seems immune to the poaching scourge. Armed militias slaughtered elephants in many locations, and cyanide was used to kill somewhere between 100-325 elephants in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. It is a slaughter beyond comprehension and apparently happening with almost complete impunity.
- Despite a large number of intercepted shipments of ivory, very few significant arrests have been made. Container loads of ivory can seemingly be sent around the world from ports like Mombasa and Dar-Es-Salaam without traceable shippers or receivers. Those arrested for poaching incidents are virtually all “foot-soldiers” who manage to receive light sentences and do not reveal the identities of their bosses. In Zambia, a shipment of ivory was first seized from the luggage of the Minister of Defence on his way to China, then the same shipment was seized again from a General travelling to the same destination, and finally the same ivory was seized for a third time from a Chinese diplomat. I use this as an indication of the levels of people involved in the illegal trafficking.
- Staying with elephants, it is not only the great number of animals killed that is tragic, but also the impact such poaching has on the social structure of elephants. Very few herds now contain older elephants. Losing those animals not only destroys social cohesion within herds, but also represents a loss of individuals who know seasonal migration routes at the very least.
- One last low point for elephants – the IUCN Elephant Summit held in Gaborone, Botswana achieved very mixed results. Almost half the African elephant range States, most of those in western Africa, did not attend. Of the 20 range States that did attend, half sent low-level delegations. There was no discussion about the perilous state of western African elephants although genetic and morphological analyses show these populations should be a separate elephant species. Inaction on this crucial matter has resulted in all African elephants being treated with the same level of conservation urgency, while western African elephants deserve to be listed by the IUCN as highly endangered. Togo emerged as a shipment point of ivory from those forest elephants and Spain was implicated for the first time as a transit state. It is an indication of how quickly ivory syndicates can move their bases of operation to stay ahead of law enforcement agencies.
- The western African black rhinoceros was declared extinct. The northern white rhino no longer occurs in its natural habitat and only few specimens remain, notably some on a ranch in Kenya sent there by a zoo in the Czech Republic. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed in 2011, and only one population of about 40 animals remains in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia.
- The southern white rhino and the few remaining black rhinos are under severe poaching threat. In South Africa alone, at this time of writing, 953 rhinos were poached in 2013, a 43% increase over the 668 rhinos poached in 2012. Some say the number in 2013 could be as high as 1,100. The area most affected by poaching is the Kruger National Park, where poachers are said to enter from neighbouring Mozambique almost at will despite presence of significant numbers of rangers and the South African Defence Force in Kruger. Over 300 arrests have reportedly been made, but very few convictions are reported. As with ivory poachers, most of those arrested seem to be “foot-soldiers” rather than those more significantly involved in the illegal trade. Most of the traffic of poached horns is destined for Vietnam, though the Vietnamese authorities say it goes to China.
- The South African government has announced it will seek permission from CITES to legally sell stockpiled rhino horn to as yet unidentified trading partners. This is despite the fact that it is illegal to sell rhino horn in Vietnam and China, and that rhino horn has no medicinal qualities. Also, while the South African Government has indicated the sale will be able to supply the demand of horn legally (undercutting the current $65,000 per kilo price of horn at destination) and that profits earned will revert to rhino conservation activities, there is no indication of what the level of demand is. Some surveys indicate that if sales of rhino horn are legalized in Vietnam, four times more people than those currently buying illegally will purchase horn products. Nevertheless the South African Government will push ahead with the legalization of horn sales as an attempt to “curb poaching” – a proven model of failure with the ivory trade. A number of “wildlife economists” of dubious credentials support the trade.
- The EU Parliament expressed “regret” that no African lion range state proposed uplisting African lions to CITES Appendix I at the Conference of Parties in 2013. Also, no African lion range State has requested either the IUCN or CITES to list genetically distinct western African lions as “critically endangered” despite only 750 individuals remaining in a few scattered populations. While the CITES Animals Committee requested a Periodic Review of remaining African lion populations in 2011, this remains widely ignored. LionAid estimates there are only about 15,000 lions remaining on the African continent based on an evaluation of existing data and ability of the remaining African lion range states to conserve populations.
- The South African captive lion breeding industry continued to grow, and it is estimated that between 6,000 to 8,000 lions are now kept in cages. These lions are destined for the “canned hunting” trade, the zoo and circus trades, sent to dubious destinations in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, used to supply the burgeoning “pet” trade in United Arab Emirates, and the ever-growing lion bone trade in Laos. Lion breeders also earn significant sums from cub petting facilities, lion “walks”, and a growing involvement of paying “volunteers” duped into believing they are saving lions. Few other countries are so blatantly involved in breeding carnivores in captivity to be shot by trophy hunters, and it has been dubbed “South Africa’s dirty little secret”. Recent investigations have shown that countries like Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are also joining in the lucrative trade.
- Increasingly, evidence is emerging that lions are being specifically poached for their body parts including skin, bones, fat, teeth and claws. Such items are either used locally, sold to tourists, or sent to Asian consumers. Lion cub smuggling is also a growth industry to feed the captive breeding requirements in South Africa and the pet trade in the Middle East.
- The CITES Secretariat and WWF joined forces to advise member States against uplisting endangered polar bears to CITES Appendix I, citing global warming as a bigger threat than commercial utilization. This is despite a growing trade in trophy hunting of bears and a big trade in skins. During the actual voting the EU bloc fell into disarray as Denmark dissented and caused the 27 EU nations to abstain. For good measure Denmark then used her vote against the uplisting. Similarly, politics ruled the day with Kenya’s proposal to place a moratorium on rhino trophy hunting in South Africa – it was withdrawn after South Africa sent a delegation to Nairobi to “discuss” the issue.
- Following the attack by rebels on the one existing Okapi research facility in Democratic Republic of Congo that saw seven people and 14 Okapis killed in 2012, the IUCN placed Okapis on their critically endangered list. Overall, about a quarter of the world’s mammals are now endangered.
- Funding for conservation continued to become ever scarcer. Where it is available, it is these days largely directed towards antipoaching and attempts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. This will have positive consequences, hopefully, but is too specifically targeted at two main species – elephants and rhinos. It is also a massive task, given the level at which organized criminality and corruption has invaded the highest levels of Government in many countries. Consequently, while good aims like strengthening law enforcement and border controls, encouraging cross-border and international cooperation in policing, strengthening judiciaries and demanding higher sentences are all laudable, the political will to implement such strategies could be significantly lacking. This is already evident in the lack of progress in arrests and convictions of those high up the supply chain rather than the focus on those at the bottom. I would suggest that in our rush to prevent commercial poaching we should not lose sight of the needs to maintain funding for endangered species and habitats.
And now to the 13 high points in conservation in 2013, again in no particular order:
- In January, the Zambian Minister of Tourism and Arts announced an indefinite ban on lion and leopard trophy hunting. Despite considerable opposition from the trophy hunting lobby well represented in the public and private sectors in Zambia, the moratorium still stands. It is to be hoped that it will be maintained at least until independently verified surveys of remaining lion populations in Zambia are conducted; the Zambian wildlife department has claimed a total population of 3,800 lions while other informed estimates indicate possibly between 450-500.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service has completed all requirements for a review to place African lions on the US Endangered Species Act. This listing would prohibit all further imports of lion products, including wild lion hunting trophies, into the USA. This would reduce wild lion trophy hunting by about 60%, but is vociferously opposed by the US hunting lobby who argue it is the “right” of Americans to travel the globe and hunt what they can. The USFWS announcement of their decision might come in January, but already a “war chest” of funding has been collected by the hunting organizations to challenge any positive development in court. We shall have to wait and see…
- The EU is also considering imposing stricter rules governing the import of hunting trophies of selected species. Previously, such trophies were exempt from EU trade regulations as they were imported as “personal and household effects” with the only requirement that such trophies were accompanied by a CITES export permit from the country of origin. Personal knowledge indicates that such permits are easily obtained from corrupt officials, not least exemplified by the proliferation of “pseudo hunters” of rhinos in South Africa from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Denmark. Those horns soon disappeared into the commercial trade. If the EU stands fast such import permits would allow a second layer of independent assessment to determine if trophy hunting is indeed “sustainable” in terms of offtake from source populations. In other words, it allows control over imports to reside in the importing countries rather than the exporting countries.
- Hillary Clinton took up the cause of anti-poaching by announcing that ivory poaching funds terrorist organizations like Al Shabaab and local militias that destabilize African Governments. President Obama responded by making funds available, and significantly more funding was made available by the Clinton Foundation. Hillary neglected to mention that the ultimate paymasters of the illegal poaching reside in China, and that therefore by her definition, China is a sponsor of international terrorism. It also appears that most ivory smuggled out of Africa does not fund local militias and terrorist groups, but goes into the pockets of those locally well-placed to facilitate the trade. Nevertheless, Hillary created a watershed moment that is faithfully echoed by a number of nations. Not to be outdone by the USA, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK have recently joined private donors to provide funds to stop the trade.
- China seemed a bit embarrassed by the overwhelming evidence that virtually all poached ivory ends up in Chinese carving factories. Some dealers were arrested in China for illegal trafficking, China donated $500,000 to the African Elephant Fund, and China is making the appropriate noises about stemming the illegal trade. But China still insists that their internal ivory market is sacrosanct and will not participate officially in any demand reduction efforts. Surveys show that very many more Chinese would buy ivory if they had the money to do so. Despite the technology to demonstrate both the origin and age of ivory being sold, no moves are taken to test what is on the market.
- Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge announced a Summit on Illegal Wildlife Trade to be held in London in February 2014. Organization of the Summit was delegated to both the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Fifty nations are invited to attend at a high level of Government representation, but the proceedings will be held behind closed doors. The event and potential results are much anticipated, and deliberations will focus on three pillars: law enforcement, demand reduction and alternate livelihoods. LionAid proposes a strong focus on the latter.
- The 2013 CITES conference was called a partial success due to added levels of protection given to a number of marine species including western African manatees and fishes like sharks and rays. Enforcement will be difficult.
- CITES also named and shamed some countries involved in poaching, trafficking, and consuming ivory. This so called “Gang of Eight” includes Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines; and Thailand and China. The countries were given a limited amount of time to correct their errors and submit reports on ways and means to do so. Such reports have not, and probably will not, be made public. CITES also told Mozambique and Vietnam to cease their rhino horn trade or face sanctions. This is the first time CITES has shown any teeth, and their intentions can be lauded. Separately, the Philippines and the USA destroyed their ivory stockpiles and France announced it will do so in 2014.
- Presidents Ali Bongo (Gabon) and Ian Khama (Botswana) took affirmative action on strict measures to prevent elephant poaching in their countries. Other nations took note including Niger, Zambia and Kenya. Kenya passed a long-delayed Wildlife Bill imposing very strict penalties on poachers and allowing for generous compensation over loss of human life and injuries due to wildlife. The Bill also includes sections allowing for cropping and culling of wildlife and mining in National Parks and Reserves that need more attention from lawmakers.
- Melissa Bachman, a (minor) celebrity TV hunting show host in the USA shot a captive bred lion in South Africa. Despite over 700 people annually doing the same thing, Melissa received 400,000 internet petition votes to ban her from ever again setting foot in South Africa. In a viral Tweet Ricky Gervais wrote “@MelissaBachman: incredible day in Africa! Stalked this male lion … what a hunt! Spot the typo”. Melissa took a break for a while and then announced that her hunt was perfectly legal and that the captive bred lion she shot will “feed the community” and also contribute to the conservation of lion populations. Another spoof on Melissa during this time said that we must not blame her for her pronouncements as she fell on her head during childhood and suffers lingering brain damage. But overall Melissa is to be thanked for her contribution to awareness that canned lion hunting is to be reviled.
- In the UK, Natural England, a semi-autonomous licensing agency finally pulled the plug on granting further permission to cull badgers, a nationally protected species, in Gloucestershire. The Government and the National Farmers Union had insisted on the cull to supposedly prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis to cattle. Ignoring all previous scientific evidence, public opinion and contrary advice the Government rammed the programme through and well over a thousand badgers were killed. Not a single dead badger was tested to determine if it could in fact spread the disease. Despite the setback the Government will insist in 2014 on rolling out the culls to other counties. It will be looked back on in history as a triumph of politics over science, vote seeking over sense.
- August 2013 saw the celebration of the first World Lion Day. Events were organized in cities across the globe, and with growing awareness of the critical conservation needs of arguably the world’s most iconic of species, future events will multiply and grow. Most people do not realize there are fewer lions remaining than elephants, rhinos, polar bears, chimpanzees, orang utans, lowland gorillas, etc. Few people realize that there are probably more lion statues in European cities than lions remaining in the wild, and the total number of lion skins and trophies in the world significantly outnumber the number of lions living in the wild today. The next major worldwide lion “event” was announced – a march in March to protest against the use of captive bred lions for sport hunting. Marches are planned in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa.
- Thanks to you, our friends and supporters, our small but effective charity continues to grow from strength to strength and is broadening our support base across the globe. We strive always for effectiveness in our dealings with people ranging from Presidents and Prime Ministers to Maasai cattle owners in Kenya.
And finally, here is our LionAid wish list for 2014:
- That all African lion range States take strong conservation measures to reverse the precipitous declines in lions, beginning with some dedicated stocktaking of what populations remain.
- That all African range States which allow lion trophy hunting impose an immediate moratorium, count what lions remain, determine the population structure of lions in hunting areas, and then strongly consider a total ban on the practice.
- That the member States of the EU immediately begin the process of placing lions on their Annex A of the Wildlife Trade Regulations (equivalent to CITES Appendix I). That trophies of lions from South Africa be immediately be banned as virtually all come from captive bred animals and the EU should not be supporting this sordid industry.
- That the African lion range States which have not already done so, especially those in western Africa, immediately place lions on their lists of nationally endangered species and implement urgent plans to ensure the recovery of remaining populations.
- That international organizations like the IUCN and CITES immediately acknowledge western African lions as a critically endangered species.
- That much needed and substantial funding is made available to support programmes directly relevant to reducing lion mortality including the LionAid initiative to mitigate lion/livestock conflict.
We wish you and your families all the very best for a happy and fulfilling 2014. We hope you will continue to assist us so we can together chart a much needed course for more effective, rational and successful conservation programmes for lions and a diversity of other species.
Picture credit: “The Dead Tree” – Sebastian Wuttke
If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you.