Archive | January, 2018

Poaching Pachyderms: Africa’s Victims of the Illegal Ivory Trade

Big Elephant Eye Animal Close-up Face EndangeredOver 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.

An African elephant's tusks will continue to grow throughout its life. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

An African elephant’s tusks will continue to grow throughout its life. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

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.

Elephant families from Tarangire (Tanzania). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Elephant families from Tarangire (Tanzania). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Wildlife Recovery Efforts Persist After the Thomas Fire Claims 273,400 Acres of Chaparral

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.