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Save the elephants: How we turned a corner on the ivory trade

Sue Williams

Published: May 19 2017 - 7:24PM

Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed by poachers in Africa. Yet despite this grim statistic, there is new cause for optimism that shooters can be kept at bay.

I can hear the deep, throaty baying of the bloodhounds clearly from my hiding place 500 metres away. The sound makes my skin prickle with fear. I've done everything I can to disguise my trail, from burying it under animal scat to peeing on it, from doubling back and criss-crossing the plain to fording a stream. But the howling is approaching so rapidly that I begin to panic.

I make a sudden decision, scramble to my feet and start running. It feels like only a matter of seconds before I sense the dogs at my heels. Flash to my own nightmare Game of Thrones scenario where arch villain Ramsay Bolton carelessly tosses two women to the dogs for food – before being eaten, in a much later episode, himself. But this time, as the two bloodhounds finally pounce on their prey, the major danger is … drowning in the dog slobber.

Immediately, they're called off, and I'm hauled to my feet by Calum Macfarlane, who runs this vast African wildlife conservancy in the foothills of Mount Kenya. I've been taking part in a training exercise for these anti-poaching dogs; bloodhounds schooled in the art of hunting down the gangs intent on slaughtering elephant and rhino for the rich rewards of their ivory and horn to satisfy markets in China, Vietnam, the US and, yes, Australia.

"The difficulty in Australia is that people from this far away don't seem to realise that any ivory product involves killing an elephant," says Rebecca Keeble, the Australian senior policy and campaigns officer of one of the largest conservation not-for-profits in the world, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Oceania. 

"So when they want to buy ivory, they don't really understand where it comes from, and that they're helping create a demand for the product that some people will then always want to supply."

But in an industry best known for its grim statistics – 144,000 elephants poached across Africa between 2007 and 2014, or one killed every 15 minutes, according to the Great Elephant Census – there's suddenly much more reason for optimism.

Most of that is coming from a suite of innovative new measures being trialled in Kenya to defeat the poachers, a number of which are being undertaken by Australians, with a major exercise inspired by the work of an Australian counter-terrorism expert. At the same time, there have been landmark successes in helping curb demand for ivory in a trade that Interpol estimates is today worth between $US10 billion and $US20 billion a year, with Australia playing a role there, too.

A nine-month investigation by IFAW of auction houses in Australia found an astonishing 2400 ivory products being listed at 17 auction companies within a 12-month period, and then 78 per cent of those lots selling. That damning report, published late last year, has had a seismic impact on attitudes.

Auctioneers Leonard Joel, operating in both Sydney and Melbourne, was found to be offering the highest number of ivory lots for sale at 300 but, after discussions with IFAW, managing director John Albrecht underwent a complete change of heart. "You could call me 'born again' on this issue," he says. "As an auction house, you get bogged down in talking about ivory in terms of age and antiquity and beauty and cultural significance and intellectualising its importance in decorative arts.

"But I now understand that when an auction house agrees to trade in ivory, then they put a value on it and help to create a market. By doing that, you're a party to what's happening to elephants because any piece of ivory, however beautiful, always originates from the slaughter of an animal. Now I look at ivory objects I once thought were lovely and they absolutely repulse me." 

From January 1 this year, he pledged to no longer trade in any raw ivory, like pairs of tusks, as well as any post-1921 worked ivory, while from January 1 2019 his auction rooms will no longer have anything to do with worked ivory pre-1921, either. "I'm absolutely passionate about this and am committed to changing the domestic perception of this issue," Albrecht says. "I think I'm gently driving the rest of the industry mad trying to get them on board but it's an important step for us all."

At the same time, pressure is growing on the Australian government to ban the local trade in buying and selling ivory antiques completely, following a resolution adopted unanimously at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) late last year recommending that all members close down their domestic markets for ivory. The US is currently doing that, state by state, France has done so, and the UK is talking about it. China, which as the leading destination for African ivory since 2002 on data from the Elephant Trade System, takes in an estimated 70 per cent of the global ivory supply, announced in January that it will ban all ivory trade by the end of this year.

"That was a huge step in helping stop the world ivory trade," says Keeble. "It would seem quite an easy step for Australia to make too, especially as it won't affect the auction houses so much here now either. We have an opportunity now to support this and be at the forefront of the movement to save elephants."

Meanwhile, in Africa itself, those on the ground trying to physically protect elephants are becoming ever more inventive in their mission to outwit the poachers. Kenya is proving to be very much at the vanguard of the effort, with a series of experiments, such as the anti-poaching bloodhounds at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, to reinforce their arsenal.

So far, it's proving remarkably successful and now I understand why. A piece of specially manufactured, highly absorbent gauze had been placed over one of my footprints to pick up microscopic cells. The dogs were given one sniff of it and they tracked me down within what felt like seconds.

Their scent-following skills are legendary. One time they tracked a would-be poacher to the town of Isiolo, 32 kilometres away. They are one of the reasons – along with the thermal imaging technology deployed on a helicopter at night, a mini-army of 150 specially trained rangers, a highly sophisticated network of local informers, newly strengthened police powers of arrest and fast-track court processing – that no elephant has been killed for its tusks in the last five years here.

"We've worked hard at it," says Macfarlane, the big, bluff Scotsman who runs the Lewa House conservancy along with his wife Sophie Brown, a fourth-generation local. "We're doing everything we can." He surveys his security headquarters, with its array of weapons captured from poachers, which includes iron bars fashioned into spears with their tips dipped in poison, guns and ugly steel traps. "All these would mean terrible deaths for the elephants. These men have lost their tracking skills so if an elephant gets injured, the poachers can't keep up with it or find it, so it's a long, slow, lingering end. Horrible."

The poachers’ tools include iron bars fashioned into spears, their tips dipped in poison. Photo: Julia Cumes

There's also the Save The Elephants-funded project to place radio collars on elephants which, via GPS tracking, shows their migratory patterns, helped by special "elephant corridors" dug under the roads, funded by a donation from Sir Richard Branson. The collars will also alert rangers when the elephants are wandering too close to local farms. They can cause huge damage and farmers have been known to attack them in an effort to keep them off their land.

"This is the best wildlife conservation example in East Africa," says Dr Zeke Davidson, Marwell Wildlife's field biologist in Kenya, who's been consulting on Lewa. "It's so important to study the behaviour of elephants before setting up a security system like this. They're smart. The day after we opened the underpass for them, we had 12 elephants using it. And when there's trouble anywhere else, we've seen them come back here, where they know they'll be safe. They're very clever animals."

American counter-terrorism intelligence expert Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas is sitting in her pyjamas watching the sun rise over Nairobi. It's half a world away from past positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today she's applying the same data collection techniques, analysis and strategies that she once used to fight terrorists to defeat wildlife poachers.

Now working as chief of staff for IFAW, she's at the helm of a major new anti-poaching offensive in Kenya in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, called tenBoma, which may soon be rolled out into other countries in Africa. It uses the same tools to weed out, track and capture poachers as are used routinely to trap insurgents, with a philosophy informed by the work of Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who was a senior adviser to US General David Petraeus in Iraq. With the first anniversary of the operation coming up in June, not a single animal has been lost in its areas. "We developed the idea of blending counterterrorism and counter-insurgency tactics and migrating them to the counter-poaching and trafficking wildlife space," says Cuevas. "We wanted to bring in a different way of looking at the problem and as a result, we're bringing an almost military campaign approach to bear, with our experience of major theatre wars, and engaging effectively with communities.

"Kilcullen asked the question, 'What does Al Qaeda look like?' and then explained that it's a global network of separate parts with the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. He said we needed to focus on the linkages between the parts, which is where you can have the most disruptive effect. Similarly, we strive to illuminate the nodes of the poacher networks to find the most vulnerable links. We've gone from reaching a tipping point [where more elephants are killed than being born] in the main elephant region of Tsavo in 2013 to a point where I'm now optimistic about the elephants' future."

That kind of military experience has led to another Australian also becoming active in the field. Australian special forces sniper and clearance diver Damien Mander visited Africa and was horrified to see the butchered corpses of elephants slaughtered for their tusks by poachers. "It affected me more than my time in Iraq did," says Mander, now 37. As a result, he sold his investment properties in Australia and put all his funds into setting up the International Anti-Poaching Federation in 2009, using drones extensively to keep an eye on wildlife.

Sydney business entrepreneur Mark Hutchinson is another who's now dedicating himself to protecting Africa's wildlife. As a young man, he travelled extensively around Africa and established adventure ecotourism company Untamed. Now, after the collapse of the education training business Vocation that had put him on BRW's Young Rich List, he's returned to Africa to set up Wild Ark, to buy, protect and restore as much safe land as possible for wildlife.

"My DNA is in this space and I've been overwhelmed by the response from our Australian audience," Hutchinson, also 37, says. "Australians are very tuned into wildlife in Africa as we're such a multicultural country and we've grown up reading books about wildlife and National Geographic and watching David Attenborough documentaries." He's been particularly successful in luring Australian celebrities over to help him in his work protecting elephants and other species, with surf champion Mick Fanning joining him as an ambassador and Wallabies star David Pocock now in the middle of a six-month break from rugby union working for his organisation in Africa.

"We get a lot of attention from social media and one of the questions we're asked is, 'How can I get involved?'" Hutchinson says. "Australians have always been interested in conservation but now they want to help create real outcomes. People under the age of 30 particularly see wildlife dwindling and want to do something to stop that. People also love hearing the positives rather than the Doomsday narratives and now there are a lot more wins to celebrate."

Julie McIntosh, founder and director of The Classic Safari Company, agrees, saying she's seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of Australians travelling to Africa, particularly to Kenya and Tanzania.

"There is always a high interest in seeing elephants, and clients are leaning towards travelling with purpose and seeing conservation projects in action," she says. "Places such as Ol Donyo – home to the 'big tuskers' – and Lewa are perfect because of their conservation efforts and the successes they have had with them. Tourism keeps conservation going and the more people learn about the efforts on the ground, the better …"

"The most powerful weapon is showing locals that conservation makes financial sense," says Kenya-based conservation scientist Jeremy Goss. "With elephants, we have a tourism industry that benefits us all." Photo: Sam Stogdale

The sun has just risen and we're walking as stealthily as we can, in single file, through the Kenyan bush just to the north of Mount Kilimanjaro. Senjuka Tomboya strides ahead, brandishing his rifle, while Altevu Lormunyei brings up the rear with a 12- bolt shotgun. Between the Maasai pair are another ranger and me, seemingly making more noise than the rest of them combined as I crunch over black volcanic gravel underfoot and snap acacia branches as I pass.

We're on the hunt for poachers after a report from locals of activity overnight near this spot, and we're creeping around on foot hoping to find them. Our commander stops suddenly, bends down, examines what are apparently elephant tracks and scat, and confers with his wing man. They're apparently from a big bull elephant in musth – a short period when his level of testosterone renders him sexually active and treacherously aggressive. It seems the dangers are now two-fold: meeting the poachers head-on and encountering their prey.

We continue, subdued and thoughtful. Every so often, Tomboya stops and motions to us to do the same. Each time, I can hear my heart thumping. But after three hours of stop-start, the rangers return me to base. They have another five hours of their patrol but I suspect I've been slowing them down. "No, but this is dangerous work," Lormunyei reassures me kindly. "We have two enemies out here – wild animals and the poachers. It is something we have to be passionate about to do."

This team is from the Big Life Foundation, a partner of a tourist lodge, Ol Donyo, in the Chyulu Hills. Big Life conservation scientist Jeremy Goss says the ranger teams, a rapid response unit and informers from the local Maasai community, who now see the elephants as helping them make a living, have meant considerable success in stopping poachers. "Last year we had just two cases, which is staggering compared to previous years," Goss says. "We had a few incidents, too, of elephant-human conflict, but we tend to shoot the elephants with paintballs of pepper to keep them away from local farms. But the most powerful weapon is showing locals that conservation makes financial sense to us all. With elephants, we have a tourism industry that benefits us all. Without it, we don't."

At the Sarara Camp in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, the managers have just set up an elephant orphanage to care for babies that have been separated from their mothers, had accidents falling down wells, or whose mothers may have been killed by poachers. "This will be the first local community-owned elephant orphanage in Africa," says Sarara manager Robert Palmer. "We'll look after them and then reintroduce them back into the wild. 

"We have far fewer elephants poached now as the local people, the Samburu, feel the elephants are theirs and want to protect them. These babies will be the future for us all." 

This story was found at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/good-weekend/save-the-elephants-how-we-turned-a-corner-on-the-ivory-trade-20170516-gw5so2.html