Nothing can stop their thunderous feet, gargantuan mass and bellowing trunks. Storming through the columns, they topple chandeliers, steamroll furniture, bulldoze staircases, and ultimately set the mansion ablaze; whilst an entrapped and terrified Ruth helplessly scrambles to the second floor of the crumbling structure.
This harrowing climax to Paramount’s big screen adaptation of novelist Digby George Gerahty’s Elephant Walk dramatized the fears which still afflict many African villagers: the elephant menace. Branded as crop destroyers and human settlement encroachers, the African elephant – one of the most beloved fixtures of zoos and wildlife mythology throughout the Western world – is being hunted to endangerment upon its own very soil. Prodded by an Eastern black market for ivory, free-roaming elephant populations have fallen to such dangerous lows that international lobbyists have waged an elephant conservation campaign. And like most Americans who admire these large, wonderful creatures in zoos and on television, my first reaction to this conflict is simple: I’m in favor of anything it takes to rescue the elephant!
So where do the opposing factions stand in this whole elephant debate? Leading the elephant conservation movement is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) who – addressing the African elephanticide, which cut the elephant population from 1.2 million down to 600,000 between 1979 and 1989 – formally classified elephants throughout most of Africa under their Appendix I category in 1990, which declares them a threatened species. In the southern part of the continent, however, the countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have their elephants listed under Appendix II, which allows for capacity limits to be set upon their elephant populations (1). Debate over the method of culling – in which elephants are rounded by helicopter and lethally darted – has re-arisen in South Africa after a fifteen year moratorium, as elephant populations have doubled beyond that countries 7,500 capacity. Sounding off on such a proposal, Animal Rights Africa (AFA) spokeswoman Michele Pickover has tersely stated the following:
1000s upon 1000s of elephants will be killed every year in the southern African region – it will open a floodgate of killing – a literal “final solution” that will, in effect, be impossible to stop (2).
While such predictions may be extreme, one should compare elephant capacity quotas to human density concerns when questioning whether culling could ever become a morally viable option. After all, could the extermination of an x-number of humans be possibly justified in overly populated towns and cities?
To their credit, South Africa’s policymaking board on wildlife affairs, SANParks, has emphatically dispelled rumors of any looming elephanticide. SANParks chief executive, Dr. David Mabunda, issued a summer 2010 memo stating how they’ve “long ditched the notion of carrying capacity… because [it’s] a concept borrowed from agriculture [that is] inconsistent with progressive wildlife population management strategies” (3). But as Mike Cadman of the animal welfare lobby IFAW has pointed out, SANParks maintains a loosely defined “precautionary principle”, which actually condones culling as a last resort for stemming elephant densities if methods such as immuno-contraception and translocation don’t succeed. Sadly, efforts to route elephants from South Africa into neighboring Mozambique have shown ineffectual, whilst contraception has only been effective amongst smaller herds (4). Ultimately, while much of this debate is shrouded in vagueness and vehemence, a bleak certainty pervades: the issue of sanctioned elephant culling has no foreseeable end.
With all this talk of concentrated densities, one might ask whether elephants could be translocated further northward to such elephant-barren countries as Niger and Chad. Depletion in these upper landlocked nations, however, is down to an even greater evil: poaching. In a 2006 NPR interview, explorer Mike Fay of the National Geographic Society horrifically recalled a surveying assignment in Chad where he stumbled upon “100 dead elephants near an elephant preserve, killed for their ivory tusks” (5). Despite the international crackdown on the ivory trade, poaching has persisted, spurred by a greedy Asian market and abetted by CITES constant wavering on their 1989 ivory ban. As the conservationist Born Free Foundation has pointed out, CITES 1997 capitulation to traders in the Appendix II nations effectively sanctioned the killing of more than 6,000 elephants over the ensuing year (6). Even with CITES 2000 proclamation of “no more trade”, Appendix II loopholes regarding stockpiles and non-commercial carvings have further fueled the ivory market. Emboldened by CITES leniency, Tanzania and Zambia have recently lobbied for inclusion in the Appendix II nations (7).
From the perspective of poor African villagers, the lure of poaching is understandable. As with other illicit trades, the evil is rooted not so much in the supplier as the buyer, because the latter sets the value on which the market stands. When small ivory Buddha heads sell for an equivalent of $1,125 on China’s black market (8), the willingness to supply is just a coin’s throw away, for the money from a single elephant kill could easily surpass the annual earnings of an entire village. In light of this monetary dilemma, questionable strategies like the trophy hunting program enacted in Zimbabwe by the rural development council CAMPFIRE – in which illegal slaughter is circumvented by the sale of high-priced, selective hunting licenses, which in turn fund communal development programs (9) – may just be a necessary stopgap: killing creatures in order to conserve their species.
Here in America, there are those who say that we should simply allow foreign cultures to handle their own affairs, but I believe that Americanization is a just imprint upon any nation accepting our assistance. And who’s to say that the internal doings of one nation won’t impact us all? As any scientist would explain, elephants play a crucial role in their ecosystem: converting woodlands into grasslands; drilling waterholes from riverbeds; forging fire-breaking pathways; and enriching agriculture through the seed dispersal of their digestive tracts (10). If one thing leads to another, the loss of the largest land mammal could unleash an ecological maelstrom upon all creatures under the sun.
With a trumpet blast, the circus turned to spectacle as an agitated elephant lashed at his trainer and violently proceeded towards the walls of the tent. As crowds of families stood in panic, Clark braced Lois’ hand and told her to hang tight; he was calling for security and would only be gone for a moment. And in the blink of an eye, a man in a red cape flew into the heart of danger and lifted the elephant above his head. A few seconds more and they were peacefully flying a mile high in the sky. Minutes later, Superman had the elephant happily reacquainted with its relatives in the wide, open parklands of Africa.
The preceding vignette could have likely redeemed Superman IV, the parting jinx to Christopher Reeve’s run as the Man of Steel. I was certainly taken by a super-powered daydream whilst viewing YouTube clips of Tyke the elephant’s horrific final hour. But beyond the realm of fantasy, the power to save our fellow species is already in our possession. It’s contained in the human rationale.