Over a three-year period of time (2010-2012) 100,000 African elephants were massacred by poachers for their ivory tusks. Since then, protection efforts have increased and elephant poaching has reportedly declined for the fifth year in a row. Yet elephant populations continue to fall. As the body count of environmental defenders begins to rise, it appears as though poachers will do whatever it takes to hit their mark.
Garamba National Park is an expansive UNESCO World Heritage site located in a remote corner of northeastern Congo. As in many of Africa’s wildlife preserves, struggling populations of elephants at Garamba are being slain at a distressing rate. The mammoth mammals are targeted by poachers who cut the tusks and off of the animals without any regard for the mounting casualties. Once the ivory tusks are collected, they are sold to the highest bidder on the international market. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reported that few places in the world are as unswervingly dangerous for environmental defenders and their charges as Africa’s wildlife preserves. In 2017, 170 environmental defenders — citizens protesting mining, agribusiness, oil and gas development and logging, as well as land rights activists and wildlife rangers — were killed in the line of duty. Many of these environmental defenders are employees or volunteers at animal parks working to protect endangered species of elephant across the continent of Africa.
African Elephants in Danger
An elephant’s tusks can be both a blessing and curse. They offer a sense of true majesty to the already impressive elephant, but also, expose them as targets. Tusks—the elongated teeth that jut out of a mammal’s mouths—are common to walruses, wild boars, and both male and female African elephants. Once a dominant trait in male Asian elephants, tusks are now found in roughly 50 percent of the Asian male population— an evolutionary modification which is believed to be a result of the threats associated with poaching. Like human teeth, an elephant’s tusks are deeply rooted, covered in enamel, and comprised of firm, dense, bony tissue. These extended incisors are used to dig holes, forage for food and to fend off predators.
The nearly 100 pounds of ivory in an elephant’s tusk has peaked the interest of poachers for centuries. Ivory, once used to fashion piano keys and billiard balls, is presently crafted into ornamental artwork and trinkets that are illegally traded on the international market. Today, China and the United States are the two largest ivory markets in the world. In China, owning ivory can be seen as a status symbol. It is typically carved into bracelets, bookmarks, statuettes, combs, and various art pieces, and can fetch as much as $1,500 per pound. However, the monetary price is minute when compared to the expense of elephant life behind each piece of ivory. There is no easy way to extract a 100 pound, fixed tooth from an elephant. To detach the tusk, it must be carved out of the skull— a process which typically requires fatality.
Despite a ban on the international ivory trade, African elephants are still being poached in colossal numbers. So much so that over the past decade, Central Africa has lost 64 percent of its elephants. Researchers now fear that more elephants are being poached than are being born. A landmark analysis conducted by Colorado State University found that between 2010 and 2012, 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers. In 2012, one of the largest mass elephant slaughters in decades took place in Bouba Ndjidah National Park, Cameroon. Armed with grenades and AK-47s, poachers slaughtered approximately 650 elephants in roughly three months’ time. The photos circulating the web are too gruesome to share, but a quick search of the internet will deliver horrifying clarity.
This Way Forward
To combat the purchase and sale of ivory, grassroots organizations and community leaders from around the world are exposing the realities of elephant exploitation. In China, celebrities are working to create a local consciousness and dissuade newer generations from buying ivory products. Following the campaigns, a shift in thinking has been reported and between 2012 and 2014, the proportion of Chinese who believe elephant poaching is a problem grew from 47% to 71%. Since 2015, Chinese and US governments have agreed to work together and enact a ban on global illegal ivory trade. Some report that the number of poaching deaths in elephants has declined over the past five years, but environmental defenders still have a long road ahead. Though Africa’s open plains seem vast, the growing human population is forcing elephants into smaller habitats where it is easier for poachers to locate their prey. Wildlife organizations from around the world continue their work to protect these magnificent mammals from human disturbances and to preserve their open space.
From the ashes of the Thomas Fire come stories of displaced human and wildlife. The wildfire has threatened an already sensitive California condor population, torn a mountain lion cub from its mother, and sent birds on an unusual migration.
Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the Thomas Fire burned with an intensity that scorched over 273,400 acres of land. The fire, which has burned for over three weeks, swept through areas of Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, and the Los Padres National Forest to become the largest fire in recorded California history. From the ashes of the flames come the heartbreaking stories of the destruction of entire communities. The news is rife with accounts of human displacement and families spending the holidays at the Ventura County Fairground’s evacuation facility, but the stories of the wildlife—whose already limited open space has been torched—also deserve our attention.
It has been suggested that wildfires can have some benefits to nature— Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, allows for more sunlight, and nourishes the soil— but the toll the fire takes can be colossal on the general population of animals who count on existing conditions to survive. Many creatures can be seriously injured or killed by the flames, but perhaps the greatest impact of fire is the loss of habitat and smaller prey that help balance ecosystems and feed larger animals.
Condors, mountain lions, and red-tailed hawks make up just a few of the animals impacted by the Thomas fire. Here are their stories:
California Condors- A Story of Hope
With a 9 1/2-foot-wingspan, the federally endangered California condor is considered the largest scavenging bird in North America. Condors are carnivorous birds who travel widely to feed on the carcasses of deer, rabbits, sea life, and pigs. In the 1980’s, condor populations were down to an astounding 22 birds and on the brink of extinction. Since then, rehabilitation efforts and captive breeding have re-introduced over 230 free-flying birds to the California skies. As the Thomas Fire made its way through Fillmore, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became concerned for the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest where the endangered birds nest and roost. Before the fires, a condor chick known as No. 871 was being monitored by biologists as it prepared fledge (fledging, describes the period of time when a young bird develops wing feathers that allow them to leave the nest and fly for the first time). The blaze made its way to the entrance of No. 871’s cave, and the outlook for life seemed bleak.
According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, scientists spent the days after the fire working hard to locate No. 871 and other condor survivors. Telemetry devices which receive a signal from a tracker attached to each protected condor were used to track movement. For several days after the fire, a weak signal had been transmitted through the trackers, but it was not until Wednesday, December 27th, that crews received the welcomed news of No. 871’s survival. As the condor parents of No. 871 circled their chick, the biologists celebrated their victory. Still, the condors face a hard road ahead as many of the animals they feed upon did not make it through the fire.
Injured Mountain Lion Cub Rescued
Out of Santa Paula comes a rescue story that brings tears to the eyes. Like the California condor, mountain lions in Southern California have been closely monitored for years. As the long-term survival of mountain lions in densely populated areas was increasingly threatened, conservation biologists began a system of tagging and tracking the large cats to study their survival in an urbanized landscape and to help protect them. The majority of older cats living in the Santa Monica and surrounding mountains have been located and tagged, but many young cubs have yet to undergo tagging procedures. Such is the case of newly-discovered mountain lion cub who was injured and likely orphaned during the Thomas Fire. Santa Paula residents reported several sightings of the cub shortly after the blaze, but it wasn’t until the cub was captured off of the bike path that caretakers understood the extent of its injuries. As a result of the fire, the cub’s paws were badly burned.
The five-month-old cub who weighed in at 32 pounds was tranquilized and lifted into the rescue truck before being turned over to veterinarians working at UC Davis. The vets are working to treat the injuries sustained during the fire and will determine when it is safe to re-release the cub into the wild. Generally speaking, young mountain lions learn to hunt on their own sometime between the ages of six and eight-months-old.
Squirrels and rabbits make up the bulk of a mountain lion’s diet. Since squirrels and rabbits are not as mobile as bigger animals like deer or coyotes, many either die in the fires or starve to death afterwards in the sparse, charred surroundings. Loss of smaller wildlife not only impacts the individual animals themselves, but also the larger animals on the food web who hunt the smaller prey to sustain their lives.
Fighting For Air Space
In a lot of ways, birds benefit from fires over the longer term. Charred surroundings encourage an overflow of bugs and Bark-and wood-boring beetles will arrive in droves and lay eggs in charred trees—a feast for birds! However, shrinking habitats after a wildfire can encourage competition for land and airspace. Following a wildfire, some birds migrate from their hillside residences to the city. As Havasi Wilderness Foundation’s founder, Alex Havasi, explored the Ventura area after the burn, he captured photos of a red-tailed hawk and a crow in what seemed to be a battle for rights to the sky.
Countless residents (including myself) have been displaced from their homes along with wildlife and domestic pets who are looking for homes. Find out more about how you can help some of these pets in need by visiting the Ventura County Humane Society and lacountyanimals.org.
It’s hard to believe that the end of the year has arrived! 2018 is less than two weeks away, and as the close of this season approaches, we at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation find ourselves in gratitude for the many hands that helped us make 2017 such a spectacular year!
2017 with the Havasi Wilderness Foundation
The foundation has had a busy year and we want to express our gratitude for the individuals that helped us fund raise through our various programs: Planet Green where we collected ink cartridges and small electronic devices for recycling and the Ralphs Community Program for those that shopped and gave their reward points to our foundation. Thanks to Telos Capital Management for helping us with our investment portfolio to bring in additional funds so we can help the next generation. At home, we recycle plastic bottles and the money collected goes back into funding the goals of this nonprofit. Because of these generous contributions we are able to educate youngsters and the general public about wildlife and our shared ecosystem.
Many blogs in 2017 were posted by Makena Crowe and we want to express our thanks to her for some well-written informative blogs. She has gone on to further her career in the legal field and we take this opportunity to wish her success and happiness in this choice.
In mid-March, we went on a National Geographic Around the World by Private Jet trip and gathered action still-shot photos and videos of wildlife from 11 countries. We were blessed to visit 10 World Heritage sites and learned so much about cultural practices and diverse ecosystems on these travels. Shortly after our return, Alex Havasi compiled our photos into DVD format and we have given presentations at two bird clubs to share what we have learned. We thank the Ventura County Bird Club and the Conejo Valley Audubon Society for inviting us to be their guest speakers.
In the Spring, we attended the 9th Annual SAGE Student Research Conference at California State University Channel Islands. The Havasi Wilderness Foundation nonprofit funds the research program at Santa Rosa Island and this has given us the opportunity to meet each of the university students and learn more about each research project. In addition, we were able to recognize student efforts with a Havasi Wilderness Foundation Scientific Study Participant medal. We hope to continue our work with Cal-State Channel Islands and the Santa Rosa research station and support the next generation of environmental leaders.
In May, we welcomed Lola West as our current Media Specialist. She creates the blogs that you read on a regular basis and updates our social media. Thanks to Lola for a job well done. Your enthusiasm and love of nature shows in your posts and we appreciate your work with us to help bring awareness and education to our audience of nature lovers.
In late May, we were invited to visit with the students at the Reményik Sándor Hungarian School in Reseda, California that features an educational program that we annually sponsor. The students performed Hungarian dances, sang songs, and presented us with an album about their educational activities for the semester. The students expressed their gratitude for our financial help of the program and we look forward to offering continued support.
In the summer, we visited the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita, California and met Gabriella Skollar, the director. Our media specialist accompanied us and followed up with a very nice blog about gibbons.
For the past 7 years, we have sponsored an educational program at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. This program has continued to grow and we met in June and in September to visit with the outgoing director of the program, Stephen Vodantis and the incoming interim replacements, first Danielle Alvarez and currently Kelly Kazmirchuk. Elementary schools who wish their students to learn more about the Malibu Lagoon, Topanga State Park, and the Sepulveda Basin wildlife connect with our program so that specially trained instructors can share and teach the various aspects of wildlife and plants at each location.
Our blogs have touched on subjects about dinosaurs, whales, and even outer space adventures and we want to thank Lola West for bringing our year to a close sharing some of her latest voyage experiences and writing such wonderful stories.
At the conclusion of 2017, we wish all of our supporters and visitors a Merry Christmas, Happy Kawanza, Happy Hanukkah, and as they say in Hungarian–Kellemes Karácsonyi ünnepeket kivánunk!
Sandor “Alex” Havasi and Marilyn Fordney
One of my favorite things about working for the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is that they share my love and curiosity of all things wild. These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel and adventure for me. From the goliath mountains in Zion National Park to the prehistoric fossils in Morisson Colorado, there has been little time to rest in the presence of such giants. Follow our upcoming blog and journey together with me through Utah, Colorado, Tulum, Mexico and the ruins of Chichen Itza.
This week’s adventures begin in Morisson, Colorado: home of the Dinosaur Ridge National Natural Landmark. Located west of Denver and approximately 1 mile from the acclaimed Red Rock Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge is one of the world’s most celebrated fossil districts.
Just off of highway C-470, a sign advertising dinosaur footprints caught my eye. The dinosaur-lover in me prompted a mission to explore the area more thoroughly. The visitor center offered my partner and I a free map and told us that we could either pay to be driven up the mountain or climb it ourselves. Welcoming the opportunity to stretch our legs, we chose the latter. I was met with a seemingly inconspicuous road and a slow incline of dirt-colored rock that betrayed none of its priceless contents at first glance. As I began the journey up a steep, paved path, my gaze slid over a patch of rock that rippled with a ribboned pattern. A nearby sign indicated that lines were an impression of preserved microbial mats in which microorganisms turned the sediment layers found in the supratidal zone into spongy, pock-marked mats on the ocean floor. According to the park, some form of rapid burial helped preserve the wavy shape of the microbial mat while millions of years hardened the sand into stone. I swung around to study the incline of the mountain on which I stood and paused to reflect on its past-life as an ocean floor.
My eyes traveled across the rock to an imprint larger than my head. The deep three-pronged grove was smooth, shaded in black and reminded me of the mark a seagull makes as it walks across wet sand. I turned to a posted sign nearby and discovered that the print was likely made by an an ostrich-sized carnivore like Ornithomimus.
Alongside this print were more than 330 other prints comprising 37 different trackways. A trackway is a succession of prints made by an individual dinosaur. In addition to the bird-like three-pronged print, I saw a more bulbous print made by an herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur such as an Iguanodon. Each of the dinosaurs lived in the Cretaceous period (145.0 million to 66 million years ago).
While fossils tell the stories behind the way that dinosaurs died, the tracks reveal important information about the way they lived. Colorado has been a hub of dinosaur exploration since 1877, when Arthur Lakes, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, spotted an enormous vertebra embedded in a block of sandstone at Dinosaur Ridge.
As I came to the middle of the rock exhibition, I noticed the layers of rock beginning to peel away. The sign posted implored us to look closely at deep scars hewn into the surface of the stony landscape. I studied the scars and a 45 million-year-old story began to take shape. In contrast to the dinosaur footprints the scars on this rock were jagged and long and took the appearance of being scratched from a large, clawed animal. The Deinosuchus was far larger than any modern crocodile or alligator and at 35 feet, this apex predator was likely capable of hunting large dinosaurs. As the crocodile passed its body through the shallow waters of the prehistoric marine environment, it pressed its claws deep into the sand leaving behind an enchanting story.
How were these prints preserved?
Though now a sprawling mountainside, Dinosaur Ridge was once an area of marshlands located near a beach. The topography of the marshlands was composed of thick layers of mud-covered sand. As dinosaurs and crocodiles walked through the mud, their prints were depressed into the sandy layers below the mud. The mud hardened into mudstone and millions of years of erosion eventually exposed the sandstone layer that maintained the shape of the footprints. Since Colorado experiences all four seasons, these prints are often exposed to unkind weather conditions. Each time snow covers the prints and melts away it endangers the print itself. In 2010, the community surrounding the Dinosaur National Monument began a campaign to protect and preserve these precious pieces of our prehistoric puzzle.