The Economics of Extinction: Africa’s Elephants and Rhinos in Danger

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In Kenya, this anti-poaching team protects a northern white rhino. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty

You wouldn’t think a room as big as a warehouse could feel this airless— not even a maximum-security warehouse, like this one. At the same time, the place seems odorless. Which also seems strange, with so much evidence of death shelved in wire-mesh bins and stacked up like firewood on all sides. But the overwhelming impression is utter soundlessness, except for the tread of armed paramilitary escorts’ boots.

Few other outsiders have ever seen the inside of the Tanzanian government’s notoriously secretive Ivory Room. Whenever the country’s law enforcers catch ivory poachers or smugglers, or find an elephant dead of natural causes, the tusks are supposed to be sent to this repository in the African nation’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. At present the government-owned stockpile holds more than 137 tons of ivory. Its retail value on the ground in Hong Kong would be more than a quarter of a billion dollars—if only the worldwide ban on ivory trade didn’t prohibit such sales.

For now, however, the ivory continues to pile up. And the worst of it is that what arrives in this government warehouse represents only a fraction of the total kill in Tanzania alone, never mind the rest of the continent. Today, all of Africa is suffering one of the bloodiest wildlife slaughters in history—of not only the elephant, but the rhinoceros as well. Asia’s booming economies have spawned an insatiable market for contraband luxuries and traditional “medicine.” (The truth is that, contrary to persistent myth, rhino horn has no more medical value than your fingernails, which consist of the exact same substance: keratin.)

Having effectively destroyed its own wildlife supply (the Javan rhino was declared extinct on the mainland in 2011), Asia has turned to Africa’s comparatively well-stocked populations. Conservationists warn that, at current rates, only drastic action will save the elephant or the rhino.

And yet no one seems able to say just what kind of action would be drastic enough to succeed. Coldblooded Asian moneymen are said to be snatching up ivory and rhino horn as investments against times of even greater scarcity. Prices have already reached unprecedented heights, with ivory commanding more than $1,000 per kilogram in Beijing, while rhino horn fetches more than 20 times that figure—far more precious than gold or cocaine.

Lured by these riches, seasoned killers are elbowing the old-style amateurs and subsistence hunters out of the poaching business. These days the illicit ivory market is fed by some of the continent’s most vicious and heavily armed militant groups, including the Janjaweed of Sudan, Somalia’s Al-Shabab, and the Lord’s Resistance Army originally from Uganda. Meanwhile, the dwindling populations of rhinoceros have come under attack by a new order of professional criminals who mount commando assaults using helicopters, night-vision goggles, high-powered rifles, and RPGs.

Thanks to such rapacity, the continent’s elephant population has fallen to the middle six figures—roughly half of what it was in the late 1970s. In Tanzania alone, poachers eliminate about 10,000 of the beasts annually—up to 9 percent of the country’s total herd—according to recent testimony by James Lembeli, chairman of Tanzania’s Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources, and Environment.

In other words, the country’s poachers are making off with roughly double the contents of the Ivory Room every year. The threat to the rhinoceros is even direr. Across the continent, barely 26,000 remain: 21,150 of the white-rhino species, mostly in South Africa, and 4,200 of the critically endangered eastern black species, mostly in Kenya. The western black subspecies was declared extinct in November 2011. And only seven specimens of the northern white rhino subspecies survive, four of them at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Painstaking management, diligent security, and imported stock have enabled Tanzania to rebuild its embattled black-rhino population to around 100 animals, but the killers are at work there as well. The fruits of the poaching frenzy are hawked shamelessly at Dar es Salaam’s Mwenge market. Just step inside any of these ramshackle shops and make your way past the dusty carved-ebony giraffes and hippos to the back room. There’s always a back room. “You looking for underground business?” the visibly intoxicated shopkeeper slurs. “We have pembe”—Swahili for rhino horn.

His assistant immediately produces a foot-long tusk from a bag beneath a table and begins shaving off a small pile of flaked ivory. It looks like shredded Parmesan—or perhaps toenail clippings. “Will cure anything,” the shopkeeper promises. He says he finds plenty of customers among the 100,000 Chinese nationals who live and work in the Tanzanian capital. His asking price for powdered ivory is $93 a gram—about twice the going rate for that much gold dust. For that amount he says he’ll toss in a brand-new elephant-hair bracelet. He wants $900 for the whole tusk. Or for $3,000 you can have one the size of a man’s arm. He doesn’t happen to have any rhino horn in the shop just now, but come back in a few days, he says. He’s sure he can find what you need. Rats skitter along the rafters.

Although poachers in Africa can only dream of prices like that for their kills, they do all right by local standards. In Tanzania they’re likely to take home $450 per kilogram of tusk—not bad money in a country where per capita income is under $600 a year, according to the latest U.N. statistics. Across the border in Kenya, middlemen typically pay $3,500 per kilogram for rhino horn. Around Laikipia and Nakuru, the upcountry areas of Kenya where most of the poaching takes place, locals generally subsist on $300 or less a year.

Such desperate poverty inevitably encourages poaching, but conservationists also blame the region’s toothless wildlife-protection laws. In fact, most Africans regard the big animals as menaces far worse than the poachers who prey on them. Subsistence farmers in the countryside live in fear that their crops will be trampled by elephants, and if a man with a gun can keep their families from going hungry, he’s their friend and hero, not a criminal.

In the long run, however, poaching poses a grave threat even to those Kenyans, Tanzanians, and other Africans. The fact is that elephants, rhinos, and other “charismatic megafauna” are essential to sub-Saharan Africa’s vital tourism industries. And yet poachers just laugh at the criminal sanctions they face in countries like Kenya and Tanzania.

Claus Mortensen remembers how his hopes for the rhino soared at the start of the new century. As longtime manager of Mugie Ranch, a 49,000-acre livestock operation and private wildlife refuge in central Kenya, he had dreamed of bringing the long-vanished black rhinoceros back to its former home ground among the lions, giraffes, and elephants of the acacia-dotted Laikipia plateau. At last it seemed possible: the hunting and poaching frenzy of the 1970s and early 1980s had become a distant memory, thanks to a shoot-to-kill directive, a concerted anti-ivory consumer-education campaign in the West, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Mortensen’s two dozen transplanted rhinos quickly made themselves at home in the half of the ranch that was set aside for them. “The first years were bliss,” he recalls. But starting in 2008, his dream fell apart. Rhino-horn prices jumped in Asia, and poachers in Africa went on a rampage to fill the demand. Wildlife experts blame a viral Internet rumor about a nameless Vietnamese official who supposedly experienced a miraculous cure from cancer thanks to powdered rhino horn. In the years since, Western journalists have never managed to find him or her. Conservationists suspect that he or she may have been a fictitious character invented by an unscrupulous Asian marketer.

poaching-FE01-third This ivory is being impounded by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. It’s unknown who killed this elephant or why. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty

The ranch lost six of its rhinos in just three years. Kenya Wildlife Service investigators finally tracked down a local middleman and arrested him (and others) for organizing the killings, and Mortensen attended the trial. The accused killers—Kenyan Somalis, as it happened—lounged in the hallway outside the courtroom and taunted Mortensen as he passed. “Kifaru bado kufa?” they asked him in Swahili: are your rhino dead yet? When he went home to the ranch that night, he learned that still another rhino had been killed in his absence. Mortensen says the middleman was found guilty and fined $470. Just one of the horns he got would have been worth at least $200,000 in Vietnam.

The California-based owners of Mugie Ranch agonized over what to do. In the end, they decided they couldn’t leave the surviving rhinos at risk of being killed, and efforts to protect them had become cost-prohibitive. With the help of the Kenya Wildlife Service the owners sent their 23 remaining animals to the relative safety of Ruma National Park, on the distant shores of Lake Victoria.

I was at the ranch a year ago to witness the departure of Mugie’s last rhino, a young female the ranch staff had named Parri. She ran across the savanna as a helicopter drifted overhead. A KWS sharpshooter aimed his rifle, fired, and scored a bull’s-eye. A tranquilizer dart’s fluorescent-pink shuttlecock bobbed briefly on her rump before she staggered and collapsed. Rangers on the ground scrambled to amputate most of her two horns (they regenerate) and implant radio transponders in the stubs for future tracking purposes. Then a stimulant injection jolted her awake again. She lurched to her feet and bolted straight into a big crate that had been placed right in front of her. Parri was on her way.

Unfortunately most of Africa’s poaching problems defy such tidy solutions, and the senseless slaughter continues. Ian Craig is the owner of Lewa Downs, a private sanctuary that is home to one of the largest black-rhino populations on the entire continent. (Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton here at the foot of Mount Kenya in 2010.) The place is famous for its tight security, but in two days this past December, poachers killed four of his animals—two females and two immature males. Three of the animals were killed for nothing. “They got one horn,” says Craig. Mortensen says in despair: “If the poachers can get into Lewa—one of the most heavily guarded ranches in Kenya—there may be no hope.”

Hopeless or not, the entire continent’s situation seems grim at best. Over the years, South Africa has won wide praise for its efforts to save the rhino, but the country lost a record 668 of the animals to poachers in 2012—fully 220 more than were killed in 2011. And massive seizures of ivory in Asia and elsewhere suggest that far more is getting through undetected. The awful truth is that the forces conspiring to kill the elephant and the rhino are more organized, better equipped, and more efficient than the agencies that are trying to keep them alive. “It’s not just an environmental issue anymore,” says Ian James Saunders, cofounder of the Tsavo Trust. “It’s an internal security issue.”

Saunders, in his mid-40s, is a former British Army and intelligence officer and a veteran of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These days he’s based in a remote corner of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, where he’s setting up what he calls “a new law-enforcement infrastructure” in an area where poaching is particularly rampant. The rise of organized crime, in the form of ivory and rhino-horn syndicates, is a threat to the whole country, he warns. Just look at the resources America devotes to fighting organized crime, he says, “and it’s still a losing battle. Imagine how much more difficult it is in Tanzania and Kenya.”

poaching-FE01-fourth This rhino skull in South Africa has been shorn of its horn. The animal was killed by poachers. Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty

The killings get more and more vicious—and more brazen. Earlier this month in Tsavo East, a heavily armed group of poachers massacred an entire family of 11 elephants, including a 2-month-old baby. The killers gunned down the youngest ones first, evidently knowing that this would cause the adults to gather into a tight group to defend the little ones rather than scatter. Poachers have used the same tactic with similar results in southern Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve.

Nevertheless, a lack of funds makes it practically impossible for either country to fight the poachers. This past October, Tanzania’s minister for tourism and natural resources, Khamis Kagasheki, applied for special dispensation from CITES to sell 110 tons of ivory from the warehouse. (He only wishes he could sell it all, but CITES forbids the sale of confiscated ivory.) The hope was that the proceeds would fund new efforts to stop poaching. Besides, says Kagasheki, a Fordham-educated economist who was appointed to the job thanks to his flawless reputation for integrity, maintaining security at the warehouse costs money, and he has no cash to spare.

But before CITES could meet to consider the application, authorities in Hong Kong seized two shipments of smuggled Tanzanian ivory worth more than $1 million each. Embarrassed and frustrated, Kagasheki withdrew the application.

Wildlife experts propose a whole range of ideas to deter the killers if not stop them. Daphne Sheldrick urges tougher penalties for poachers. In a lifetime of working with animals in Kenya, she has raised more than 130 orphaned elephants and more than a dozen orphaned black rhino. “You can get life imprisonment for killing a man,” she says, her blue eyes glittering, “but only nine months for killing an elephant. Killing an elephant is equally serious in my view. There are so few left.”

Others say it’s useless to go after the triggermen. “Blaming or shooting the poachers is just stomping out fires,” says Richard Ruggiero, a biologist and old Africa hand with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We need to take out the syndicates. Rhino traffickers are the most hard-core criminals that exist today. They are the same people who trade in humans, drugs, arms, and blood diamonds.”

But the higher you go in the syndicates, the harder it becomes to identify the crooks, never mind prosecute them. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, says there’s only one solution: “involve the Chinese.” He’s confident that when Beijing finally decides it’s time for Chinese consumers to stop buying ivory and rhino horn, they’ll stop in short order. Never mind people who say the old traditions are too powerful to reverse, he says: “How do you stop binding women’s feet? The Communist Party stopped it dead overnight.”

The environmental-protection organization WildAid is urging consumers across Asia to avoid rhino horn and ivory, and the group claims to have had success in the past in discouraging Chinese diners from eating shark-fin soup. The group says many Chinese mistakenly believe that rhinos shed their horns every year, the way deer drop their antlers to grow new ones.

In any case, the traffic in horns and tusks shows few signs of slowing. Although Nigeria has only 100 wild elephants of its own, it has become the continent’s largest center for retail ivory, according to field studies by the Kenya-based wildlife-trade authority Esmond Bradley Martin, who estimates that 98 percent of the buyers are Chinese. In the past decade the number of Chinese living and working in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, has soared—and in the city’s Lekki market, he found a vast assortment of carved ivory goods at only a fraction of the prices they would fetch in China. Chopsticks that would cost $455 in Guangzhou were a steal in Lagos at $63. An ivory necklace that might go for nearly $600 in China was priced at $57.

The toll from such baubles and trinkets adds up to a bloodbath. During his study of the Lekki market, Bradley Martin counted a total of 14,000 ivory items, all from elephants freshly killed in neighboring Benin, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and as far away as Kenya and Tanzania.

Gazing across the savanna at Lewa Downs, Craig can only wonder if anything can stop the poaching in time to save the wild rhino. “The endgame is that in 30 years, the rhino will be a zoo animal, protected in little isolated pockets,” he says. “And rhinos don’t breed well in zoos. Then what do you do?” At the same time, Douglas-Hamilton refuses to despair—for the elephant, at least. “We have been through one holocaust before,” he says, grimly recalling the wholesale slaughter of the 1970s and early ’80s. “We can get through the second.”

Win or lose, it’s a painful business. Mortensen is up at dawn every morning on game patrol. The ranch still has elephants, cheetahs, and other animals to keep track of, even if the rhinos are gone. And yet as the mist clears each morning, he automatically looks for the old, familiar three-toed tracks. The rhinos of Mugie Ranch used to cross the red-dirt road at the same spot every night to browse a favorite area.

That was part of the problem. Rhinos’ clockwork habits make them wide-open targets for poachers. “I miss the rhino,” says Mortensen. The worry and the heartbreak just became too much. “I don’t miss waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunshots, or the sound of the [VHF] radio going on,” he says. “Your heart stops.” The big beasts are hundreds of miles away now, but they’re all safe and sound—as far as he knows.

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