Africa

Letter from Africa: Elephants' end?

  • 3 October 2013
  • From the section Africa
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The carcass of an elephant which was killed after drinking poisoned water lies near a water hole in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park on 27 September 2013

In our series of letters from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the plight of the African elephant.

Our world has become a more dangerous one for man and beast alike, with murder and murderers dominating recent news.

I was struck these past few days by the callous murder of some 80 elephants in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.

Poachers, it has been reported, poured cyanide into the drinking and salting wells frequented by some of Zimbabwe's 80,000 elephants with the sole aim of killing them and removing their ivory tusks for sale to buyers in Asia.

The National Parks say a thorough search of the surrounding villages has already yielded 19 tusks together with cyanide poison and the authorities have made arrests.

Across the continent, poachers have been killing elephants in greater and larger numbers - a family of 11 was slain in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park back in January, and, according to The International Fund for Animal Welfare, some 400 elephants were slaughtered in the first three months of 2012 in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park.

While over in Gabon, a country whose green credentials are the envy of many, 11,000 forest elephants are said to have been killed by poachers from 2004 to 2013 because they were after the pink-tinged ivory of Gabon's forest elephants which is said to fetch high prizes and much in demand by jewellers and their customers in Asia.

'Unbelievable damage'

A pattern seems to be emerging here where Africa's close encounter with new economic giants like China has meant all resources are on the negotiating table; but ivory, long protected by international law, can only be obtained by the illegal poaching of Africa's most majestic beasts.

Image caption An international campaign has been launched to protect elephants

It is difficult to know where the blame begins for this sudden elephant murder spree.

African detective novelists might lead their protagonists from the urban hotels where an encounter with a Chinese businessman will tempt a poor worker to head to his village and inform his relatives that a little hunting will benefit the whole family.

But in reality it will impoverish these African nations as a whole and the sight of elephant carcasses strewn across the savannah with their tusks removed confirm the suspicion that people are the worst guardians of this planet and should not be trusted to hand it over to future generations without unbelievable damage.

And so it was heartening to hear Zimbabwe's Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere talking of changing the law so that poachers may be punished more severely for their outrageous disregard for the nation's heritage.

Image caption Eight elephant tusks were used for the UN's Chengdu-Kunming Railway carving

"We are responding with all our might because our wildlife, including the elephants they are killing, are part of the national resources… that we want to benefit the people of Zimbabwe," the minister said.

This particular cyanide slaughter will have affected not just the elephants - birds, lions, leopards, giraffes and many other beasts that used the same watering holes will have perished and the body count will rise as hyenas, jackals and vultures feasting on the remains will ingest the cyanide poison which human hands laid in the water for a few miserable dollars.

'Poison poachers'

Ironically, since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) banned ivory sales in 1989, loxondanta Africana - African elephants - have had a tough time holding on to their tusks and their lives.

Before such a ban, China even gifted the United Nations, in 1974, a magnificent sculpture of exquisite craftsmanship depicting the Chengdu-Kunming Railway.

Image caption Some countries have burnt seized ivory to prevent it from entering the market

But today we would recognise that that piece was made out of eight enormous elephant tusks, four elephant lives and dozens of repercussions for their grieved offspring.

The minister of environment in Zimbabwe is at pains to call this a global problem and he is right.

The green concerns of the modern day are alive to the possibility that there may be none of these awesome beasts left should poaching and the markets for ivory be allowed to go unchecked.

Rather than turn Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls into a tacky Disney World theme park in an effort to attract tourism, the government would be better off pulling in the elephants' friends to their beautiful parks.

For elephants are not short of sympathisers and half a million people in 15 cities across the globe will be marching to draw attention to the plight of the African elephant this October.

The cyanide slaughter awoke the social media generation from teenagers to vegetarians to international footballers.

The Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey - whose current form has delighted fans in north London and Africa's massive Arsenal following - tweeted a few days ago: "Just read about elephants being poisoned for their ivory in Zimbabwe. Absolutely shocking."

The minister was aware of this famous tweet and told the BBC that Mr Ramsey would be welcome to see for himself the efforts under way to save his tusked friends.

Image caption Poisoned water could threaten other animals

But if Minister Kasukuwere is to be the saviour of the elephants, he must punish the buyers too, and not flinch at the possibility of poisoning the poachers themselves - the life of a poacher who cannot think of the future beyond a few hundred dollars surely deserves poison too?

For the lives of 80 elephants lost so brutally would have replenished the national coffers with their enormous weight in gold 80 fold through resurgent tourism.

In the end, the government threw the law book at the poachers - 15 years in jail and a fine of $800,000 (£493,000).

But someone bought that cyanide, someone funded the brutal operation and someone somewhere has more of those tusks missing from those elephant carcasses.

There is more to be done.

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