The Demise of the Elephant

It’s a battle that has been raging for decades. Elephant (and rhino) poachers vs conservationists. Now a new study, [The Great Elephant Census], by 90 scientists has shown that the numbers of elephants left in 18 African countries have plummeted due to illegal poaching with 27,000, or 8%, killed every year.

Some quotes from a CNN article:

“Prior to European colonization, scientists believe that Africa may have held as many as 20 million elephants; by 1979 only 1.3 million remained — and the census reveals that things have gotten far worse. According to the GEC, released Thursday in the open-access journal PeerJ, Africa’s savannah elephant population has been devastated, with just 352,271 animals in the countries surveyed — far lower than previous estimates.”


“The killers often don’t even wait until the elephant is dead before they begin their ugly butchery. The grotesque scene is repeated again and again across Africa’s savannahs. ‘I’ve been asked if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Africa’s elephants, and on days like today, I feel that we are failing the elephants,’ says Chase.”


“But many poachers across Africa are less sophisticated, emptying out the entire magazine of an AK-47 to pierce an elephant’s tough hide, using poison-tipped spears, spiked traps and snares, or poisoning water holes.
In Angola, poachers even use grenades and mortars left over from the war to kill the animals. ‘They will use anything that has the potential to inflict serious harm or kill an animal,’ says Chase. ‘This is a dismal fate. Who are we to sentence this animal to the verge of extinction using the most inhumane and cruel means?'”


“‘These are emblematic creatures of the African continent, they are symbols of Africa, symbols of freedom,’ says Chase. ‘These animals are facing incalculable odds. It’s not just poaching, it’s habitat loss, human elephant conflict, climate change. These are issues confronting us as well — they’re emblematic of the struggle for survival. They are our living dinosaurs, the romance of a bygone era, and if we can’t conserve the African elephants, I’m fearful to think about the fate of rest of Africa’s wildlife.'”

And this point:

“Despite the poachers’ desire to make a quick buck, elephants are actually far more valuable alive than dead. Every elephant killed will earn a poacher just a few hundred dollars — the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of dollars its ivory fetches on the black market go to middlemen and organized crime gangs. By contrast, a live elephant can earn more than a million dollars for communities involved in eco-tourism, according to a report from The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.”

The main reason why this is happening is, I think, universally understood: Ivory, and greed. The two largest consumers of ivory are China* especially [examples: here and here] and the United States. Rather belatedly, the US placed an almost total ban on it in June. China, too, has recently made some efforts to combat the trade but it’s a tough fight.

But there’s another reason, “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. TCM is supposedly a set of healing medical practices going back thousands of years, and while there is some evidence for this, it turns out that TCM is largely a modern, political construct, (see also this article – german translation). In his scholarly article, R. Chang states:

“It is commonly assumed that contemporary Chinese Medicine has an ancient lineage and its practice can be related in a straightforward way to medicine practiced in China for thousands of years. In this article, I argue that this impression is mistaken. What we currently call traditional Chinese Medicine is only sixty years old and it does not share the same theoretical principles to the ancient medicine of China”.

“‘Where can we go to buy animal parts?’ he asked me conspiratorially, ‘Tiger, eagle, snake? For medicine! For men’s health!'”

Thankfully, enlightened voices in China are attempting to turn the tide on ignorance. Even some involved in TCM are joining the struggle to separate fact from fiction. Says China Change:

“First I think it is important to establish that there are many effective applications of TCM herbal remedies. While adherents would describe this as “proof of the system”. Western medicine (a.k.a. Science) would point out that these herbs actually contain active ingredients that treat symptoms and illnesses exactly as predicted by the scientific understanding of the body, not because of Qi blockages or Yang imbalances. TCM also includes dozens of “cures” such as tiger penis (for infertility) and rhinoceros horn (reducing fever) have been shown by modern medicine to be completely ineffective, or simply placebo effects (more on this soon)…. In anthropological terms we can see that most of these remedies rely on sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic refers to ascribing properties of one item to another because of similar attributes. i.e.: A tiger is very strong, so eating it would give a man strength, or that walnuts look like a brain, so they must help brain function.. These treatments appeared to work, and so they were slowly incorporated into the system. Perhaps the greatest damage has come to TCM in the past few hundred years as traditional remedies are being prescribed for ailments they were never meant to treat. Things like rhinoceros horn and elephant tusk are being prescribed for infertility as a TCM cure, despite that this actually goes against the tradition.”

Notable Chinese celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming are also speaking out.

Let’s hope the voices of sanity and compassion, not only for the elephant, but also for the many other animal species so threatened win the battle. What a sadder, poorer world it will be if our animal friends are wiped out.

Note: China and Korea are now pilfering plants from California, some species of which are endangered.


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