Vultures: They came, They ate, They died.

By Joachim Huber [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joachim Huber (cropped) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Last week I came across an article in Raptor Politics linking to an August 29 article in National Geographic that has me totally bummed out.

We have all heard stories about elephant poachers who kill African elephants for the ivory in their tusks. Apparently, because the flocks of vultures that arrive rapidly on the scene can sometimes give away the position of the poachers, they have taken to poisoning the elephant carcasses.

The vultures come. The vultures eat. The vultures die.

In one case an estimated 600 vultures died for the two tusks taken from the carcass of a single elephant. This death toll doesn’t include dependent young that may have starved to death or fallen prey to other predators.

In recent years, the illegal ivory trade appears to be in state of increasing demand and decreasing supply despite a 1990 international treaty banning the trade in ivory. According to a May 2010 Associated Press article, published at SFGate.com (Ivory black market threatens the elephant) from 2002 to 2010, the price of ivory in some Asian markets rose from $100/kg to about $1800/kg. A January 2013 BBC article (African elephant poaching threatens wildlife future) describes traders selling tusks for $400/kg. No wonder elephant poaching is accelerating and increasingly more dangerous. As the stakes rise the poachers are better armed and willing to take bigger risks. The result may be the disappearance of the African elephant from the wild, perhaps in our lifetime. Worse still, this is also coming with a significant by-catch that may result in the disappearance of other animals such as several endangered species of vultures.

It is very easy to feel depressed reading about the elephants and vultures being slaughtered for simple greed. It is much more difficult trying to come up with solutions that might help stem the illegal ivory trade and protect both elephant and vulture. Here are some that come to mind:

  1. Get rid of the poachers. How this is done is a good question. If you read the comments to the National Geographic article there appears to be little sympathy for these poachers. Some groups tasked with protecting wildlife in Africa, such as park rangers, appear to have unofficial policies of just shooting first and asking questions later. A big problem is that many African countries do not have he resources or willpower to deal with poachers. In some countries the wild populations of elephants are already gone while in others, the lack of protection probably means extirpation there as well.
  2. The poachers are after the ivory in the tusks so just remove the tusks. This is not an ideal solution but in the short term might provide some reprieve. I am not an elephant expert and do not know how this would affect either elephant social behaviour or even their ability to survive. Nonetheless, a tusk-less elephant is, it would seem, preferable to a dead elephant and subsequent generations of elephants could sport them in the future when it was safe to do so. The logistics of performing this operation on elephants on a large scale would probably be challenging.
  3. Taint that tusks to make the ivory less valuable. Perhaps drilling holes and refilling with something like an epoxy so that they retain their strength. Perhaps something can be sprayed on them that discolours the ivory down into the tusk’s core. You would want to discolour the tusks in any case to make sure hunters could tell that they were worthless before they shoot and kill the.
  4. Make the penalty for any dealing in illegal ivory more severe. The 1990 treaty banning trade in ivory allows for legitimate trade in “old” pre-treaty ivory which opens up the door to counterfeiting. Some countries are cracking down more on illegal trade though it is probably not enough.
  5. Make it unfashionable to have ivory products. The elephants may not survive long enough for this solution however.

With the majority of the illegal ivory trade residing in several Asia countries led by China, the problem may seem far away. A 2008 National Geographic article (U.S. One of Largest Ivory Markets, New Study Says), however, shows that the richer Western nations also share some of the responsibility for these massacres.

References

Here is a list of reference that were used in writing this article or that are interesting for further reading.

[1] Raptor Politics (2013-09-11): The Slaughter of African Elephants and Vultures reported out of control

[2] National Geographic (2013-08-29): Elephant Poachers Poison Hundreds of Vultures to Evade Authorities

[3] BBC News Africa (2013-09-11): Can we learn to love vultures?

[4] National Geographic (2008-05-05): U.S. One of Largest Ivory Markets, New Study Says

[5] SFGate article – Michael Casey, William Foreman and Jason Straziuso, Associated Press (2010-05-23): Ivory black market threatens the elephant

[6] BBC News Africa (2013-01-14): African elephant poaching threatens wildlife future

[7] Wikipedia: Ivory Trade

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