About elephants… and history lessons

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© Nathalie Boulle

It was 1986 when I boarded a flight to Tanzania and Botswana to write an article about the elephant crisis for the Italian equivalent of National Geographic. Yes, we have been here before. In the 80s we lived through the first dramatic post-colonial wave of elephant poaching. The demand back then was driven by different countries, but the target was the same: ivory.

In 1989, when the international ivory ban was introduced, and was combined with stronger on-the-ground efforts and demand-reduction campaigns, the African elephant population recovered rapidly. Today we see a new crisis. History is repeating itself and we should learn from it.

In June, after a gap of 30 years, I visited two of the same sites in Tanzania and Botswana. As I flew in on a small single-engine plane, I was once again overwhelmed by the majestic view of such a large and pristine habitat. The vast green expanse and extensive wetlands were cut through by the muddy, enchanted, snake-shaped Rufiji River.

© Tom Pilston / Panos PicturesRufiji River, Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania © Tom Pilston / Panos Pictures

But on the ground I encountered a different, disturbing story. The place felt empty. The large African wildlife was scarce and even the most common species like impalas and warthogs were extremely shy. Even a flock of ground hornbills fled as they saw our car from a distance. Crocs and hippos, where years back, you could get within a few metres to photograph, immediately submerged as we approached.

In three days, we only saw one single, and very shy, elephant. However the biggest shock was the change in the habitat. Trees and shrubs now encroach on the open spaces that, as I remember, teemed with wildebeests, zebras and impalas. When the architects of the savannah are gone, the landscape changes and the impacts on other grassland species are inevitable.

This is Selous, the largest game reserve in Africa, at over 5 million hectares. 90 per cent of its elephants have been lost to poaching — an average of almost 2,500 per year since 1976. Thankfully, there is hope, which resides with the new Tanzanian government. The government has shown gritted determination to pursue and prosecute ivory trade kingpins. This resolve, if it continues, will make a difference.

Then just a week later, I was on a boat trip in Chobe National Park in Botswana. What a contrast. Here the government clearly has prioritized ecotourism and developed a strong economy around it. Today, Botswana hosts one-third of all African elephants, and the country has risen to be an outstanding photo safari tourism destination.

© Marco Lambertini© Marco Lambertini

Our local guide Steve, 28, who was trained as a game tracker at the local wildlife tourism college, told me, “My father did not have a permanent job for many years. I am lucky that I can already work at my young age. Elephants are a blessing for my country.”

It is inspiring to see how nature conservation can help the future of elephants — and young people — alike!

Along the Chobe River we saw multi-herd gatherings of over 100 elephants, and it wasn’t even the peak of the dry season yet, when much larger groups of elephants will gather along the river. We also had no trouble approaching large crocs and hippos that kept sleeping, half submerged, not at all bothered by our close presence. The river and its banks were alive with huge riverine African ebony trees shading herds of antelopes of all kinds. It felt like a true heaven, a perfect painting of WWF’s mission of harmony and balance between nature and people. I was deeply moved. After so many years, things were even better than I could have imagined. It can be done.

Two trips, with starkly contrasting realities, shaped by bad or good politics, action or inaction.

Hope now rests with the new Tanzanian leadership to turn things around in Selous. At a meeting held at the Selous gate with the new minister of environment, WWF pledged our support.

And hope also rests beyond, with leaders at the CITES CoP in Johannesburg this September where a raft of elephant and ivory motions are up for debate. They have the opportunity to make real progress on tackling the key drivers of the elephant poaching crisis, as long as they are not side-tracked by divisive proposals on ivory trade — to resume limited ivory trading or formalize the legally-binding international ivory trade ban that is already in place.

Debate over these proposals could divert attention at a time when the world must come together to tackle the fundamental reasons for the crisis and the illegal ivory trade — in particular, corruption, inadequate laws and lack of enforcement in countries along the illegal trade chain, and rampant demand in Asia.

Focus must be on the countries whose inadequate implementation of CITES rules are contributing to illegal ivory trade. In 2013, the National Ivory Action Plan process was developed at the CITES conference under which 19 African and Asian countries must take time bound actions to address gaps in their legislation and enforcement or face sanctions.

There are signs of progress with the US and China showing extraordinary leadership in announcing domestic ivory trade bans. These bans and their implementation could begin to take us back to a place in history, when demand was curbed, the ivory trade and poaching collapsed, and elephants began to return. Or rather…back to the future. The future we want to see.

We have done it before. We can do it again. Let’s bring elephants back to the many empty Selous of Africa.

By Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International

Follow Marco on Twitter @WWF_DG

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