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Tusk Tragedy

Once every fifteen minutes, an elephant is killed by poachers.

March 6, 2017

The African elephant population has decreased by 30% from 2007 to 2014, according to a survey conducted by The Great Elephant Census. There are less than 350,000 African elephants alive across 18 countries in Africa today.

Meanwhile, the ivory trade, an often illegal form of tusk trading, is flourishing. A report from the UN Environment Programme and Interpol in 2014 stated that one kilogram of tusk ordinarily sells for $750. The average elephant tusk weighs around five kilograms, so a poacher could cash in as much as US $8,000 for one elephant. With the population of elephants steadily declining, the price per kilo will continue to increase.

A painted tusk, selling for thousands of dollars, is on display in a legal ivory store in China. Picture courtesy of The Ivory Game. 

Traders in ivory actually want extinction of elephants, and that is probably the biggest danger. The less elephants there are, the more the price rises. The more the price rises, the more people want to kill them. And this is an ever-ongoing circle that is just gonna end up bringing about exactly what they want: extinction,” Craig Miller, head of security of Big Life Foundation, stated.

Some countries- such as China, Zimbabwe, and South Africa- still allow the legal trade of ivory. However, many poachers are easily laundering illegal ivory and using that to replenish their stock of ivory. One poacher explains the whole process in a video taken while undercover by Hongxiang Huang, investigative journalist.

“All my ivory products are legal. When ivory was outlawed back in 1989, we registered our stock with the Hong Kong government. But the record was not in detail. So, when we sell ivory, I can now use illegal ivory to fill up my stock. And ivory can be legalized this way. The government has absolutely no idea how to regulate this.”

Andrea Crosta, head of investigation of WildLeaks, an organization dedicated to stopping illegal trading of ivory, explains the situation. “Imagine to have, in Europe, a legal market for cocaine or heroin. It would be really easy to launder cocaine and sell it as legal. When you find, in a shop, cocaine, it is legal or illegal. With ivory, it’s happening exactly the same. You have a legal market for something that is basically illegal all over the world.”

Many members of organizations to stop poaching are pushing hard for China to ban all ivory trade. They argue that the only way to stop poaching once and for all is to destroy the market.

“In China, ivory is a luxury item that some rich people see as a status symbol. Many people still see animals as part of the natural resources that they can use. This is the same as why everyone buy diamonds, why everyone buy gold. It is not like in the West that most people see animals as the living beings that they are,” Huang explained.

Governments of various countries are helping stamp out the market by destroying their supplies of confiscated ivory. In April this year, Kenya destroyed its entire stockpile of over 100 tons of ivory. Meanwhile, In July, the United States banned all trade in ivory. Hong Kong is claiming to end all trade by 2021.

Tons of ivory are stacked into piles, drenched in gasoline, and set on fire. Picture courtesy of The Ivory Game.

“To me, [ivory is] all just dead animals. Dead elephant. They all represent something that should be living and thriving. And what hits me so hard is, where’s the beauty in this, these dead bodies? It’s just a bag of bones. That’s why I just affiliate so closely with this destruction. Get it out of circulation, kill the demand,” Ian Stevenson, CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi, declared

Tracking down the individual poachers is a daunting task in itself, as it is often an expansive network connected by dozens of people working under one person. It is dangerous as well, for embers of an organization may be connected to mafia groups or triads.

“It is like fighting a war,” Elisifa Ngowi, head of intelligence of the National Transnational Serious Crime Investigation Unit (NTSCIU), said, “The most difficult part is to identify the enemy. The business itself is conducted secretly. The buy is secret, the seller secret, the killer is secret. So, everything is secret. Very different from conventional war.”

Organizations are hard at work to put an end to the war. The Ivory Game, a documentary released in November of this year, covers the efforts of people like Ngowi as they fight back against the cruelty.

Teams face danger in a multitude of ways- Whether going undercover into the poacher’s rings to gather information, making an arrest, hunting down poachers in the bush in the dead of the night, or pushing for a ban on trade in government meetings, every person is fighting for a cause that they firmly believe in in order to make a difference.

“Elephants cannot protect themselves against a concentrated effort to poach them. No matter what they do, firearms and poachers will win every time. So, everything we do is aimed at helping those elephants fight back. But, the reality at the moment is that we’re everything they’ve got, and without us, they’re dying all over the continent,” as Miller announced. Picture courtesy of The Ivory Game. 


“I saw many dead elephants in my life, unfortunately. The first one was a little elephant called Zambezi. He was hacked. I had literally tears in my eyes. And from that moment, I basically devoted my life to try to make a difference,” reveals Crosta.

However, some have critiqued the film and these people for not considering the other side of the coin– why the poachers hunt these animals. A South African filmmaker named James Walsh created a documentary focused on former-poachers talking about why they hunted.

Philmon Mathe leans against his house for support. After losing his leg while poaching in the village’s closest game reserve, life continued to be a struggle to feed and support his family. Picture courtesy of Sinamatella Productions.


One of those interviewed, Albert Mathe, talked about his experience. “There are different types of poachers. There are those who go out and kill rhino because they just want to make money. Whereas for us, here in the village, our stomachs are empty and we need food. That’s why I used to hunt antelope. I’d divide up the meat and we’d go trade it for money. We stopped poaching after our people were killed. They even shot my brother. Poaching is a thing of the past now. It’s just pointless.”

As the people in the village are struggling to survive, they face many difficulties that lead to them turning to hunting for money and food. Poverty, lack of clean water, and lack of electricity all contribute to the struggle.

Villagers roll barrels of fresh water back to their houses from the water truck for their weekly supply. “Our water has to be brought in from a distant town, Phongolo. The water truck only comes once a week. Our supply runs out and there’s no other source of water here,” Induna Sikhona Nkosi, traditional leader of the Zinyama District, disclosed. Picture courtesy of Sinamatella Productions.

One way nature conservationists peacefully fight back against poaching in the area is by visiting schools and teaching students about animals in the reserve.

“Our children have a better futures now thanks to the conservationists. The kids come home and tell their parents, ‘In the game reserve I saw this and I saw that!’ Even the parents who’ve never seen such sights get caught up in their children’s excitement. And the kids even tell us not to poach in the reserve again. It’s very special,” Mathe reflected.  

“I think it’s vital that we continue to protect the game reserves because if we don’t, my children will never know about rabbits or warthogs,” his brother, Philmon Mathe, continues.

Alternately, poachers are not all people in a village only doing what they need to for survival. The fight against ivory kingpins is dangerous and risky. Many poachers working for a higher employer are prepared to follow orders to shoot the rangers working to protect animals.

“[Caught poachers] go in for more than five years with hard labor. These are people I don’t feel pity for. They don’t feel pity for the elephants or any other animal that they kill. I don’t– I’ve got no mercy,” Georgina Kamongo, head of intelligence for the Zambia Wildlife Authority, declared.

Once a patrol hears shots in the dark from a reserve, it’s a race against time. Rangers spread out across the land- in jeeps, helicopters, and on foot- to desperately search for wounded, or possibly dead, elephants.

Miller shares,

“No matter how many men we have, no matter how many guns we have, every time that happens, you just feel like you’re fighting against– fighting against an avalanche that there’s no way you can stop.”


Conservationists, rangers, and people of organizations like WildLeaks, Big Life Foundation, and NTSCIU passionately argue that the slaughter of an elephant is a tragedy. Elephants are known to have emotions similar to a human and a very high measure of intelligence.

As Ian Craig, Director of Conservation at the Northern Rangelands Trust said, “Every single elephant counts. These aren’t just elephant[s]. These are individuals with families and relationships. And so, killing an elephant out of a herd is much more than just killing an individual animal. You’re destroying a family.”

A herd of elephants return to the grave site of a deceased loved one to pay their respects. Picture courtesy of The Ivory Game.

Elephants form strong bonds with the members of their herd. They typically form herds of related females and their calves, creating an average of 10 members in a herd. Males live alone, but occasionally form smaller herds with other males. Once a loved one dies, they have been known to go back and visit the site of their death. If the situation allows it, they may even return the tusks of an elephant back to their bones.

As Miller comments, “Elephants are pretty amazing, really. They have feelings like a human. And their reactions to the deaths of other elephants shows clearly that the feelings they have for one another goes far beyond our understanding.”

Also famous for their intelligence, they have begun to catch on that their tusks are valuable. Satao, an elephant poached from inside Tsavo National Park in 2014, was observed a few months before his death slowly zigzagging between the bushes in an attempt to hide his tusks from a human.

Mark Deeble, a filmmaker working Tsavo, posted the following about Satao: “I was mystified at the bull’s poor attempt to hide– until it dawned on me that he wasn’t trying to hide his body, he was hiding his tusks. At once, I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad– impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant.”

Iworry is another organization dedicated to stop the effects of poaching on the elephant population. As their website states, “The iworry campaign calls on world governments to make the illicit ivory trade and wildlife crime a priority issue, to make a financial commitment to security enforcement and to impose a complete ban on all ivory sales.” Picture courtesy of The Ivory Game.

The tusks of an elephant are the top incisors, and are used for many things- such as communicating, handling objects, self-defense, fighting other elephants, digging, stripping bark off trees, etc. They also protect the sensitive trunk. However, now the numbers of elephants born without tusks or with especially small tusks is increasing exponentially.

Poachers are causing unnatural evolution. Usually picking out the elephants with the biggest tusks, the number of big-tuskers are the lowest they’ve ever been in years. This means that females who would usually pick big-tusked males are settling for small-tuskers and tuskless males, thus producing more calves with smaller tusks or no tusks at all. In this case, the survival of the fittest is no longer the big-tuskers- it’s the ones without tusks that poachers let be.

“Whereas baseline tusklessness in a population might be four percent, over time as more and more tusked elephants are killed, the percentage may increase to 60 percent in the older animals,” Dr. Joyce Poole explains, an elephant ethologist. “When this group breeds with tuskless females, 50 percent of whose daughters are tuskless, you begin to see the gene for tusklessness spreading in the population. You can see this in almost any population that has experienced a wave of heavy poaching, in Gorongosa [in Mozambique], for example, or Selous [in Tanzania].”

As Craig laments, “Are we really, in our generation, going to allow the biggest mammal on earth to disappear? Losing elephant from Africa, is just a slower erosion of humanity. And what’s next? We’ll lose the rhino, we’re gonna lose the giraffe, we’re gonna lose the lion. Suddenly, we’re gonna have an empty world, full of people, but nothing wild.”

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