Thursday, July 19, 2007
Elephants "Learn" to Avoid Land Mines in War-Torn Angola
Biologist Michael Chase fits an elephant with a satellite collar in Zambia's border region with southern Angola. As elephants have returned to the war-torn Angola, many appear to have "learned" to avoid areas with land mines, Chase says. Photograph courtesy Kelly Landen
Elephants "Learn" to Avoid Land Mines in War-Torn Angola
Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2007
Elephants moving into war-ravaged southern Angola from neighboring countries appear to have developed the ability to avoid the land mines that litter the region, scientists report.
Michael Chase, a biologist who has been studying the elephants for seven years, says he first detected the animals' apparent ability to avoid the mines from satellite-collar tracking images.
The elephants are returning in growing numbers to southeast Angola, where thousands of the animals were massacred during the country's protracted civil war, said Chase, who heads the nonprofit conservation group Elephants Without Borders.
The region was headquarters for Jonas Savimbi's rebel UNITA movement, which is reported to have sold ivory to pay for weapons.
(Read related story: "Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say" [October 27, 2006].)
Since the end of the war in 2002, elephants have begun to go back to the Luiana Partial Reserve in Angola's sparsely populated Cuando Cubango province that borders southwest Zambia and Namibia (see Africa map).
Chase said that when the initial migration began a number of elephants had their trunks and legs blown off by mines, condemning the animals to agonizing deaths. But the elephants that followed since have avoided those areas.
"I don't know if elephants have 'learned' to avoid land mines, but my limited observations suggest they might have," he said.
"Once I overlay the movements of our five satellite-collared elephants with the location of [the known] mine fields, it would appear that they were avoiding these areas."
Evidence that elephants are avoiding the danger zones is supported by his team's observations on the ground, he added.
"We have not seen any evidence of elephants being blown up or injured by land mine explosions in the three years we have been working in this area," he said.
"Incidents of elephants being injured or killed by land mines used to happen often when elephants were chased over these areas by people."
Can Elephants Smell Land Mines?
Ian Whyte is senior researcher at South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park, which has an estimated 13,000 elephants within its boundaries.
He said the animals may well be able to develop the ability to avoid mined areas. But exactly how they do it—whether it's by true learning or by an ability to detect the mines somehow—is a matter of conjecture.
"Maybe they are able to smell the mines," Whyte said. "They move about with their trunks right on the ground, and it could be that they pick up the scent in this way.
"But they are also intelligent animals which move in groups. Maybe they learn to avoid places where they see other elephants get blown up."
Successful migration of elephants between countries could help restore balance to populations in the region, Chase said. In nearby Botswana elephants are burgeoning in number, he explained, while populations in Zambia and the rest of Namibia are comparatively small.
There are encouraging signs that the vacuum created by Angola's decades-long war could siphon off a good many of Botswana's elephants, estimated at about 150,000, he said.
But to re-establish and sustain wildlife communities in Luiana Partial Reserve, it is critical that the area be declared a national park and that the land mines be cleared, he added.
Apart from a cursory land mine survey in 2003, little is known of the extent of the mine problem, and until more work is done the mines will continue to render large portions of the region uninhabitable, Chase warned.
Johan van den Heever, chief executive of Demining Enterprises International, the firm that carried out the 2003 survey, says removing the mines is no easy task. The mined region is vast, and roads there are barely passable.
But clearing should start sooner rather than later and should be done in strips, he said, to provide corridors for elephants to pass through and create safe areas for tourists to start visiting what he describes as "one of the most beautiful places on Earth."
Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say
for National Geographic News
October 27, 2006
Sky-high demand is feeding a renewed flood of illegal ivory sales in Africa, posing a serious threat to the continent's elephants, conservationists say.
"The ivory trade is starting to come back, and it's really a concern," said Tom Milliken, eastern and southern Africa director for TRAFFIC who is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
TRAFFIC is an international wildlife-trade monitoring program sponsored by the global conservation group WWF and the World Conservation Union.
In a recent pass through the open-air markets of Angola's capital city of Luanda, TRAFFIC researchers identified enough ivory to account for the slaughter of 250 elephants.
(Related news: "African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park" [August 30, 2006].)
But Angola's estimated elephant population is only 240, suggesting that much of the ivory is coming from animals killed in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Of the 37 countries that harbor African elephants, Angola is the only one not a member of CITES, an international treaty that monitors illegal trade in species identified as endangered by member governments.
Milliken says that lack of CITES membership is helping to turn Angola into a major conduit for illegally obtained ivory.
Angola is recovering from a civil war, and today thousands of foreign business and aid workers are stationed in Luanda to help rebuild the country (Angola map).
On their days off, many foreign workers head for open-air craft markets south of the city, Milliken says.
"There you find many, many vendors—mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—selling a whole vast array of ivory specimens," he said.
The ivory is primarily in the form of carved curios, such as chopsticks, targeted toward foreigners.
In April TRAFFIC issued a report on the surge in ivory sales in Luanda's markets and urged Angola to join CITES.
"There has been very little government responsiveness to the evidence we put on the table," Milliken said.
In addition to the sales in craft markets, researchers suspect tons of raw ivory are exported from Angola to the carving industry in China, where the growing economy is fueling increased demand for the luxury item.
"That was not captured by this report, but it's certainly something that could be occurring and we are concerned about," Milliken said.
Sam Wasser is director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
His lab uses DNA fingerprints to track the geographic origin of elephant tusks seized by international police (related news: "Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows" [August 18, 2006]).
He said the ivory trade through Angola is only "the tip of the iceberg."
Wasser is currently preparing a report on the illegal ivory trade. While he declines to provide specifics until the data are published, he says elephant poaching for ivory has become a serious threat to the species.
"If you look at the overall movement of contraband ivory, it is at a staggering level," he said. "Look at the price of ivory, and you'll see why."
According to Wasser, high quality ivory in China currently sells for $750 (U.S.) a kilogram (about two pounds).
"As long as there's opportunity to move ivory and there are legal markets out there and the price is so high, it doesn't take much [knowledge of] economics to figure out what's going to happen," he said.
TRAFFIC's Milliken cautions that ivory prices might actually be substantially lower in China.
He says that contraband raw ivory is currently available in Africa for less than $25 (U.S.) a kilogram.
He believes Chinese ivory dealers are entrenched in Africa, dealing directly with the poachers to supply China with high volumes of moderately priced ivory.
Elephant Hot Spots
The population of African elephants varies tremendously among the 37 countries where they are found, Milliken says.
"Senegal, for example, is looking for the last ten elephants in the whole country, and then on the other hand a country like Botswana is the polar opposite," he said.
Botswana has more than 120,000 elephants, which is over the carrying capacity of the country's available land.
Most elephant poaching today appears to be in the heavily forested region of Central Africa, Milliken says.
"Central Africa is experiencing [elephant] population declines, and some of these declines are extremely severe, like what is happening in the DRC," he said.
The University of Washington's Wasser agrees.
"People who have been monitoring those elephants are saying, Oh my God, there's nothing left out there," he said.
"But it's also the case that many savanna countries are still poaching like crazy—it's not just in the forest," he continued. "The whole market has reached an escalating level that is alarming."
According to Milliken, convincing Angola to join CITES could help curb the latest swell of illegal ivory trade.
Better enforcement of the treaty throughout Africa and Asia—particularly in China—is also crucial to stopping the tide, he says.
"If we take China out of the equation, we get a flat line" on the hypothetical chart of ivory sales, Milliken said. "The minute we put China [back] in, that line shoots dramatically upward."
But Wasser says that he doubts CITES membership and enforcement alone will curb the trade.
He notes that a record number of large seizures have been made in the past year, and the vast majority of these were from CITES signatory countries.
"What is driving this market right now? Why is the price higher than ever before? Why aren't people doing something about that?" he asked.
"That's what we really need to think about."
African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park
for National Geographic News
August 30, 2006
A slaughtered elephant is a gruesome sight.
Poachers hack off the animal's face to remove its ivory tusks—which are all the illegal hunters value—and leave the massive carcass where it lies.
Herds of such kills are piling up on the borders of one of the elephants' last central African strongholds, Chad's Zakouma National Park, according to a disturbing new report.
Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a National Geographic Society-funded expedition, recently spotted about a hundred dead elephants on an aerial survey just outside the park's borders (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society).
"Even for someone who's been around for 20 years watching elephants be killed in that area, that's a lot of elephants," Fay said of the massacre, which he observed in early August, while he was also on assignment for National Geographic magazine.
All of the elephants found had been killed since May, he adds.
"And we certainly didn't find them all. It was just a sample survey that we did outside the park."
Fay also spotted camps of presumed poachers near elephant massacre sites. The armed horsemen fired automatic weapons at his small aircraft in an apparent attempt to drive Fay from the scene and cover their crimes.
But Fay's team, working with the Chadian government and the European Union, has succeeded in spotlighting a major poaching problem that they warn must be addressed immediately.
Stronghold Under Siege
Zakouma National Park is an elephant oasis in southeastern Chad (map of Chad).
The park is located in a Texas-size wilderness region that was home to about 300,000 elephants as recently as the 1970s.
Wholesale slaughter fueled by the international ivory trade has left only about ten thousand elephants alive in the region today.
The heavily patrolled park is key to the animals' survival, but its officials can't protect elephants that stray beyond its borders.
Though elephant hunting is banned in Chad, the black market trade in illegal ivory is becoming increasingly lucrative.
(Related news: "Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows" [August 2006].)
The Chadian government and the EU's CURESS (Sudanese-Sahelian Ecosystems Conservation and Rational Utilization) project invited Fay to survey the park's elephant population in 2005.
His comprehensive count indicated that 3,885 elephants lived in Zakouma.
But a follow-up survey in 2006 yielded only 3,020 animals, suggesting that either a large herd was missed in the count—or that hundreds of animals had possibly been killed in a year's time.
The results led to the August survey aimed at gauging poaching activity during the wet season, from May to October.
In the wet season elephants are known to wander outside the park's boundaries in search of better forage (download wallpaper of elephants at an African water hole).
"During the wet season more elephants may be outside of the park boundaries than inside," Fay explained. "The corridors they use to leave have been known for a long time, but no one had surveyed outside the park in the wet season."
It did not take Fay long to uncover evidence of large-scale killings on the fringes of Zakouma. His team was in the air less than two hours before they began spotting dead elephants.
Killers, Kills Clearly Visible From the Air
Fay discovered five distinct elephant-massacre sites during flights between August 3 and 11.
All of the animals found had been killed since the end of May, and more than half were slaughtered in the days just before the August survey started.
"Flying on the southern border of the park, we noticed dead elephants right on the border, both in and outside of the park, near where a massacre had occurred back in May when we were there," Fay explained.
"They got zapped when they reached the park border, at a spot only 1 kilometer [0.6 mile] from the other massacre site [we'd seen] in May."
Poachers appear to have set up camps just outside the park near known elephant pathways.
"We flew over a camp and there were a bunch of guys there with horses," Fay recalled.
"They were packing up very quickly and looking very guilty, so our assumption was that if we find dead elephants, and five minutes away we find a camp with guys running around looking guilty, they must be poachers.
"We found 20 carcasses right there surrounding that camp," he noted.
Two days later Fay had a much more direct encounter. His plane flew over another suspected poachers' camp, where he spotted a horseman with an assault rifle.
The individual opened fire on Fay's plane as it made its third pass over the camp—flying just 150 feet (46 meters) above the ground.
No one was injured in the attack.
Urgent Response in Motion
Chadian and EU officials armed with Fay's information have enacted an emergency effort to provide aerial and ground patrols outside the park's borders in hopes of protecting roving elephant herds through the end of the wet season.
"We've agreed to let them use our airplane for the next few months to do similar work to what we did: finding out where poachers are and letting them know that people are flying over," Fay said.
"That scares [the poachers]. Then [government officials] can follow up with ground patrols on horseback like they do inside the park."
To ensure more permanent protection, funds may be raised to build a new wet-season antipoaching base north of the park near several massacre sites.
The camp could allow officials to maintain the same kind of vigilance that has been largely successful inside the park.
"It's a very arduous way to protect elephants, all day every day," Fay said. "You've got to be there all the time, every day, year after year. If you're not there, they are going to poach—no doubt about it."
But Fay hopes to prevent the area's elephants from sharing the fate of the black rhinoceros, which was poached to local extinction in the 1980s.
The poachers "are still hammering away," he said, "and they will kill every single elephant if [the animals] are not protected."
Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows
for National Geographic News
Corrected August 18, 2006
A trail of DNA has helped investigators trace the largest shipment of contraband ivory ever seized to African savanna elephants from Zambia.
The size of the shipment—more than 500 whole tusks and thousands of individual pieces—means that elephants from a single region have been hit hard.
In the 1980s African elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million to fewer than 600,000.
The decline was partly due to loss of habitat, but ivory poaching played a major role. Despite treaties prohibiting international shipments, poaching continues today.
"The ivory trade right now is as bad as it's ever been," Sam Wasser, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said at a meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in San Jose this June.
Tracing the Trade
In June 2002 customs agents in Singapore intercepted a 20-foot (6-meter) container holding 13,000 pounds (5.9 metric tons) of elephant ivory.
The confiscated shipment is the largest seizure since the United Nations Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species banned the ivory trade in 1989.
By tracking movements of the container, investigators learned that smugglers had packed it in Malawi and shipped it through South Africa to Singapore.
The ivory was destined for Japan. Some tusks bore the imprint "Yokohama," a seaport south of Tokyo.
The shipment included 42,000 small cylinders—blanks for hanko, the stamps Japanese artists use to sign their work (see photos of carved ivory artifacts).
But investigators wanted to identify which populations of African elephants the ivory had come from, and for that they needed a "fingerprint" that would lead them to the animals that were killed.
Two years ago Wasser and his colleagues at the University of Washington published a continent-wide map of genetic fingerprints for African elephants in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To make this map, Wasser's team had sequenced DNA recovered from nearly 500 samples of dung collected from elephants in 23 African countries.
Ample roughage in the elephants' diets helps slough off plenty of cells from the intestines, making DNA easy to extract from dung.
Wasser's team found that they were able to identify which country—even which game preserve—new dung samples came from.
Bill Clark, secretary for the Interpol Working Group on Wildlife Crime, asked Wasser to match DNA from the seized ivory to his genetic map.
But getting DNA out of the tusks proved to be a challenge.
Drilling or grinding ivory heats it, destroying any DNA present, so Wasser's research group borrowed a technique from forensic dentistry.
The team sealed slices of ivory sawed from tusks in a tube along with a stainless steel plug, then froze the tube to -240°F (-150°C).
Using a rapidly reversing electromagnet to shake the metal plug, they smashed the ivory into a fine powder from which DNA could be extracted.
When Wasser's team compared 75 samples from the illegal shipment to their genetic map, they found that all of the ivory came from Zambia.
"This blew Interpol's mind," Wasser said.
Just months before the shipment was seized, Zambia had requested permission for a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory. That request was subsequently denied.
"Wasser's work is potentially extremely useful," Interpol secretary Clark said.
"Regrettably it is still quite new and being applied for the first time, so we have not yet any experience with prosecutions or the technique's admissibility as evidence in court."
But just knowing where the ivory is coming from could help, Clark said, by identifying poaching hot spots where efforts to prevent hunting could be focused.
Meanwhile the illegal trade continues. On May 10 customs officials in Hong Kong announced they had confiscated a shipment of 600 African elephant tusks.
UN Body OK's One-Time Ivory Sale, Sparks Controversy
Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 14, 2002
The votes on resuming the ivory trade have come in—and touched off an international firestorm. For the past 10 days, 160 nations have met in Santiago, Chile, at the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to discuss wildlife trade rules.
The meeting's most explosive issue was the ivory trade, banned since 1989. This year, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe had proposed to resume the ivory trade and to use the revenues for elephant conservation in their countries.
Kenya and India were opposed, arguing that resumption would trigger a resurgence of poaching, which would threaten elephant populations and, in turn, hurt safari tourism.
On Monday and Tuesday, CITES members voted to allow the "one-time" sale of 60 tons of ivory that have accumulated since 1989 in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa—at a world market value between $5 million and $10 million. One-time sales from Zambia and Zimbabwe were denied.
Ivory Gets the Green Light
"We are shocked that CITES has opened the ivory trade," says Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. "This will jeopardize the safety of elephants in the rest of Africa.
"South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are some of the wealthiest countries in Africa and they have much more to offer than ivory. CITES has given the green light to the ivory trade, which will increase poaching in countries that lack the resources to combat it."
Kenya delegate Paula Kahumbu argues that the ivory trade is starting up before international safeguard programs are in place.
"Resuming the ivory trade is about national politics and ignores scientific concerns," Kahumbu says.
On the other side, South Africa insists it needs ivory revenue to fund elephant conservation.
"This is the first recognition that we should have the chance to sell ivory to support conservation," says delegate Pam Yako, deputy director general at South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
Yako explains that the profits from the sale will provide more resources to increase monitoring of illegal activity, to buy land to extend the elephants' range and to improve fencing around the national parks.
Ken Maggs, who heads antipoaching intelligence for South Africa's national parks, points out that "Kruger National Park, where most of South Africa's elephants live, is over [5 million acres] and is patrolled regularly—a very expensive operation," Maggs says. "[The vote] is a victory for elephant conservation and for elephants."
Black Markets and Poaching
The United States supported the one-time sale, contingent upon two internationally maintained systems that track the poaching of elephants and the illegal ivory trade: MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants) and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System).
"But monitoring is not widespread, and neither ETIS nor MIKE is up and running," says Allan Thornton, director and co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in Washington, D.C., and London.
EIA has spent the last three years monitoring elephant poaching in Africa and the ivory black markets of Asia.
A one-time ivory sale occurred once before, in 1997, when CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell 50 tons of ivory to Japan.
Since then, the EIA says, the volume and frequency of black-market ivory shipments has increased, and the demand for ivory has boosted the incentive to poach.
"The legal trade just provides a cover for illegal ivory," Thornton maintains. "We are sending a signal to the African community that there is now a legal international market for ivory."
At CITES some nations pushed for an ivory quota to sell off stocks accumulated annually from natural deaths and culling. But CITES voted against quotas for now.
CITES policy calls for an 18-month lag before the stockpile doors open and the legal ivory trade resumes. Meanwhile nations are to reinforce their elephant monitoring and antipoaching efforts. Sometime in 2004, the world will have a new lesson in the tradeoff of profit and preservation.
Posted by lmurx at 3:02 PM