Friday, May 19, 2006

Protecting African Elephants from Poachers

Much of the big game in Africa is on the decline, largely from habitat loss and poaching. One of the most effective ways that elephants have been protected has been the 1990 worldwide ban on the trade in ivory. The United States alone used to be responsible for importing 45% of the ivory from recently slaughtered elephants. Last night I listened to a lecture by Dr. Delia and Mark Owens, an American couple from Georgia, who devoted ten years of their lives trying to prevent poachers from completely decimating the elephant population in the North Luangwa National Park in the northeast region of Zambia. The Owens Foundation has a good website. Now they are on a two month lecture circuit to promote their new book, "Secrets of the Savanna". They had a high tech presentation with video clips, photos, and music. They no longer live in Africa, but the research portion of the project they started continues and is supported by the Frankfurt Zoological Society of Germany. The Owenses continue to support the community development work in the villages surrounding the NLNP, which is now run by their Zambian protege Hammer Simwinga.

In 1985 the Owenses entered the North Luangwa Park to do research on lions. They soon realized that organized poaching was decimating the wildlife and that the elephants were in imminent danger. They switched priorities and developed a multi-faceted plan to save the remaining elelphants. Mark and Delia provided jobs for the local people that paid more than poaching. They set up schools and loaned money for the development of small businesses. They also armed and paid game wardens as well as training them. They met with some initial success. Then the conflict grew as the poachers threated the Owenses. Mark dive bombed the poachers camps with his plane and shot cherry bombs at them to try to scare them away. Die-hard environmentalists might be delighted with this approach, but I did wonder where American nationals should draw the line in deciding the future of territories within sovereign states. Do the ends always justify the means?

What finally ended the poaching and conflict between Mark and the poachers was the international ban on the trade in ivory, and the fact that slowly the villagers realized that Delia and Mark were on their side and improving their lives, not just the elephants. Now foreign nationals come to this region on safari to see the animals. The elephant population in the park has climbed to 2,200 from a low of 1,3oo. From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, 93% of the elephants in the park had been shot and killed. Since the elephants with the largest ivory were killed by poachers for their tusks and meat, the elephant social structure has been terribly disrupted. Females are producing their first calf at a much younger age and young males have become much more aggressive with each other. It is not certain whether the stable matriarchal family group structure will return or if the elephant culture has been permanently disrupted there. As long as the ivory ban is in place and the local people have jobs, the elephants stand a chance.


At May 20, 2006, Blogger histfan said...

The Administrative Director of the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, Inc. made some suggestions. Some of which I incorporated directly into my entry, and some I will mention here.

Not Surprisingly she underlined the following "...but I did wonder where American nationals should draw the line in deciding the future of territories within sovereign states. Do the ends always justify the means?"

Her response was: "Every facit of Delia and Mark's work in Zambia was completely transparent, reviewed, monitored and approved by the appropriate departments of the Zambian government."

"Mark had full permission from the Minister of Tourism to use the cherry bombs. Mark even showed him how they worked having a staff member shoot a cherry bomb at Mark point blank. They are noise makers only. The minister and everyone else thought it was an excellent way to protect Mark from the automatic weapon fire that was being directed at him by commercial poachers. The cherry bombs harmed no one but kept Mark from being killed so he could help people and save the elephants."

And in response to the last paragraph: "Delia and Mark did discover that females were producing their first calf at Half the normal age. This is quite astounding for an adult animal to cut its reproductive age in half but it appears to be an adaptation to rebuild their numbers."

The administrative director's comments and corrections were very helpful.

At May 21, 2006, Blogger histfan said...

The Administrative Director of the Owens Foundation furnished me with some more interesting information. I had mentioned increased infant mortality in my blog and I remembered the Owenses mentioning this in the lecture. The Administrative Director asked me about this and I erased it. Here she furnishes more information.

"I do know that inexperienced "teenaged" mothers will probably loose more infants than experienced Mathriarchs. I just had not heard any facts or figures put out on that issue. I know that Gift's first born-Georgia (whom I got to name because I was visiting when she appeared in camp and being from Georgia and the baby needing a name that began with "G" - they let me name her) gave birth at Marula Puku Research Camp and the staff there witnessed the birth but the baby disappeared after a few days and was never seen again - so they presume the baby was taken by a croc or some other predator - probably because Georgia was an inexperienced mother. So, it does fit."

She continued on a different subject" The figure that I have on elephant numbers is that more than 100,000 elephants were killed in the Luangwa valley between the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s. There were approxomately 12,000 killed in the in North Park alone leaving only 1,300 or so by 1990. One thousand elephants were being killed each year alone in North Park before Delia and Mark began the North Luangwa Conservation Project."


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