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A Shark’s Tale— Why This Ancient Species is Often Misunderstood (Hint: Hollywood)

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In the summer of 1998, executives over at the Discovery Channel introduced the world to Shark Week, a week-long block of television programming dedicated to the mysteries and science surrounding sharks. Since its inception 30 years ago, Shark Week has become a staple of summertime television in America, attracting an average of 20-million viewers each season while earning the title of the longest-running cable TV programming event in history.

At its inception, Shark Weeks programming was designed to increase conservation efforts and defuse some of the social stigmas around sharks. Lately though, the cultural phenomenon that Stephen Colbert joking deemed “one of the two holiest of American holidays,” has been generating criticism from the scientific community and shark advocates who believe that contemporary shows like Caged in Fear, Bloodline: The Spawn of Jaws, and Megalodon: The New Evidence, move further away from conservation and instead promote the dangerous fear-mongering that paints sharks as villains of the sea.  

As Shark Week comes to a close, we at HWF think this might be the right time to shed some light on these ancient creatures of the deep.

Deep beneath the ocean waters swim one of the world’s oldest living species— sharks. Predating the dinosaurs by 200 million years, sharks have roamed the seas for over 400 million years, surviving five mass extinctions! To better understand the evolution of one of the ocean’s top predators marine biologists study the existing fossil records that take the form of shark teeth and scale impressions spanning hundreds of millennia.  Fossilized teeth can provide an astonishing amount of evidence about the lives of prehistoric sharks— from their environment, to their diet, to their size. Since sharks shed thousands of teeth throughout their lifetime, these fossils are abundant.  The oldest confirmed shark fossils are a set of scales found in Siberia that date back to 420 million years ago!!!

Check out this interactive timeline from the Discovery Channel to learn more about the evolution of sharks!

Caribbean reef shark. Photo by: Albert Kok. Wikimedia Commons

Caribbean reef shark. Photo by: Albert Kok. Wikimedia Commons

Unlike other fish, whose skeletons are made of bone, sharks are one of the elasmobranchs (a subclass of marine animals that also includes skates and rays) whose structure is made of cartilage— the firm but supple material that is found in the human ears and nose. Cartilage weighs much less than bone and offers sharks an advantage when it comes to speed, agility, and energy conservation in the water.

Though most people conjure an image of a wide-mouthed, sharp-toothed human slayer (thanks, in part, to the popularity of the Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, whose star, the Carcharodon carcharias aka a great white shark fits this description) the reality is that over 400 different species of sharks exist and the diversity among them is widespread. From habitats, diets, and personality to shape, color, and size, the variance among different families of shark species is vast.

Of the 440 species known today, the largest (whale shark) measures 60 feet (18 meters) while the smallest (dwarf lantern shark) can fit into the palm of your hand.  Though immensely popular, great white sharks actually make up a very small percentage of the world’s sharks. Yet the fascination with them and fear of them seems to persist so long as the occasional human attack can be reported. Although publicity about shark attacks can be great for generating fear and popular headlines, humans are not a preferred food for sharks. Most large sharks prefer to eat marine mammals like seals, otters, and sea lions while other filter-feeders eat plankton, krill, and fish eggs from the water around them.

Great White Shark by Terry Goss at en.wikipedia

Great White Shark by Terry Goss at en.wikipedia

Most shark attacks occur when a swimmer either looks or smells like a common prey species and has been mistaken for food.  It is relatively rare for sharks to attack a swimming human being, but when dressed in a wetsuit or when spearfishing, it is not unreasonable to be mistaken for a seal or a bleeding fish. As media stories and television programming continue to promote sharks as the villains, conservation efforts become increasingly difficult. In 2013, National Geographic estimated that over 100 million sharks are being killed each year— a staggering number that promises to have a major impact on future marine ecological systems if the pattern continues. While sharks are being vilified on television and in movies, individuals are taught to fear them and illegal shark fishing can continue without much social concern.

Perhaps it is time to reframe this inaccurate characterization of these magnificent creatures. Sharks do not pose a threat to human life unless humans encroach upon their space. Even then, the likelihood of a shark attack is extremely low. According to data from the Florida Museum of Natural History,  sharks spark approximately 82 unprovoked attacks around the world each year, with just eight of those resulting in death. Which means that your odds of dying from a shark attack are 1 in 3,748,067!

These 10 shark facts from the Smithsonian’s Shark Girl might help illuminate some of the awesome and impressive qualities that sharks have. 

The Havasi Wilderness Foundation works to create an understanding of the need for environmental education and awareness among world citizens. It is our job to help preserve and protect our planet and all those who live here. If you would like to help support our work, please make a donation to us today.

 

An Extraordinary Life — Remembering Dr. Cause Hanna

On a foggy June morning, a boat full of passengers pulled alongside the dock at Santa Rosa Island. The Havasi Wilderness Foundation joined students, family, and friends of Dr. Cause Hanna, founding Director of the Santa Rosa Island Research Station, for the unveiling of a mural painted by Cal-State Channel Islands students in his honor. 

Image from a GoFundMe created for the Hanna family. https://www.gofundme.com/CauseHannaFund

Image from a GoFundMe created for the Hanna family. https://www.gofundme.com/CauseHannaFund

 

Few people live their life with as much passion and captivation as Dr. Cause Hanna. In his short existence, he inspired his students and fellow researchers to consider the world that exists outside of themselves— to see that humans, animals, trees, and plants are part of a single, interconnected system. As a founder of the Santa Rosa Island Research Station, Hanna worked alongside Cal-State Channel Islands and the National Park Service to host undergraduate and graduate-level researchers with an interest in environmental studies.

The dock at Santa Rosa Island

The dock at Santa Rosa Island

 

Though I only met Cause twice, I remember his infectious smile and enigmatic personality quite clearly and can recall being moved by his enthusiasm for conservation and care of the planet’s limited resources.  In August 2017, shortly after my last visit to the island, I learned that Cause had lost his battle with a very rare and aggressive form of germ cell cancer at age 35.   In the weeks following his passing, one could see just how great an impact Cause had on the people in his life, as messages of grief and support for his family flooded the comments section of the Santa Rosa Island Research Station’s social media site. Students and collaborators remembered Cause Hanna as a committed researcher and teacher and a loving husband and father to his wife, Tracy and his two young girls,  Solstice and Be. In September 2017, Tracy posted the following emotional tribute to her husband’s life on Youtube:

 

The mural was completed as part of a Capstone project by CSUCI students Emma Akmakdjian, Katie Bradford, Bobi Bosson, Annmarie Newberg, and Matthew Fry. During the memorial, the four students who could be in attendance introduced a video (Click here to watch the video) about their project and gave short speeches expressing how they felt working to honor Cause’s memory. As a keepsake of this event, each attendee received a tote bag containing a special Art Capstone designed T-shirt with Cause’s name and a logo as well as three different Art Capstone stickers.

 

Cause's Wife Tracy and Daughters Be and Solstice stand next to his mural.

Cause’s Wife Tracy and Daughters Be and Solstice stand next to his mural.

 

Student artists who posed with their professor to introduce their mural

Student artists who posed with their professor to introduce their mural

 

HWF founder, Marilyn Fordney expressed, “Cause is sorely missed by everyone and it seems unfair that someone so wonderful was taken so early in life”.  She recalls that many were in tears as one of Cause’s relatives stood to give a speech about Cause’s life and dedication to his work.    Today, his vibrant spirit and enthusiasm for lasting change can still be felt in the halls of the Santa Rosa Island Research Station. Though Hanna is no longer with us, his legacy lives on through his children and in the many lessons he shared with anyone who was willing to listen.

Thank you to Grace Robinson from CSUCI for hosting the Havasi Wilderness Foundation and for making us feel welcome and comfortable during this excursion to Santa Rosa Island. We wish to express our condolences to his family members, all those that worked with Cause, and especially to Tracy, Solstice and Be.

Marilyn Fordney at the Santa Rosa Research Station

Marilyn Fordney at the Santa Rosa Research Station

Creating Wild Spaces in Concrete Places—Will Rogers Learning Center

Santa Monica, California is at the nucleus of art, culture, and modern development and while the area is sandwiched between the California coast and mountainous chaparral, Santa Monica’s wild side is found more in the streets than it is in nature. Kids in this urban environment can access the ocean at nearby Venice Beach which boasts a number of trendy shops, restaurants and street performers, but for most kids growing up in LA encounters with truly wild spaces are limited.

Last week, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation wrapped up our year-end tour of the 13 schools that benefit from the HWF-funded educational wilderness field trips. Meeting with over 1,000 students has taught us a lot about the interests of those who will one day be charged with the responsibility of caring for our planet.  In an age of video games, computers, and social media inundation, it is hard not to wonder what the future of conservation will look like.  In twenty years from now, will communities find value in wild spaces and time spent in nature or will commercial interests wipe out green spaces?

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After meeting with students at Santa Monica’s Will Rogers Learning Center, I feel more confident in saying that efforts to safeguard the environment will be turned over to a generation of capable individuals.  Though they are surrounded by city traffic, Will Rogers has committed to bringing nature into the classroom and onto the campus. After being met with resistance from the school district, teachers on campus fought to keep the two trees that they have growing in the student play area —arguing that the living trees improve the aesthetic, provide shade, and encourage a connection to nature.   Student gardens line the hallways and handball courts are painted with a mountain facade. At Will Rodgers, environmental education starts early and our visit to the kindergarten classes where walls are adorned with giant cut-outs of common bugs and flowers let us know just how eager students are to learn about the natural world.

School Gardens at Will Rogers

School Gardens at Will Rogers

bugs in class

Handball courts at Will Rogers

Handball courts at Will Rogers

Kids at Will Rogers had the unique opportunity of visiting both the Malibu Lagoon and the Topanga Canyon State Park and for a handful of them, this trip was their first time out of the city! As with most students who have been asked about their favorite experience at either the Malibu Lagoon or Topanga Canyon State Park, kids were enthusiastic to share about the animals they met— and the list was LONG! For being located in two different habitat zones (the chaparral and wetlands) there were a surprising number of animals seen at both Topanga Canyon State Park AND Malibu Lagoon.  An obvious student favorite was the blue bellied lizard (see our last article) and a family of deer.  Following a brief Q& A, students were awarded medals and teachers were gifted a book about the chaparral that future students are sure to enjoy!

Many thanks to Mayra Herrera, Rebecca Urias, and Jeremy King the extraordinary teachers at Will Rodgers Learning Community,  sub-teacher Sitara Contreras, and to the students who generously gifted our founders with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and the awesome artwork photographed below!

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Taking a Walk on the Wild Side — LA’s Wildlife at Descanso Gardens

Southern California’s wildlife is as diverse as the terrain in which it can be found. From native grey squirrels, to the western scrub jay, to a vast network of oak trees, native plants and fungi— California’s mountains, valleys and chaparral provide habitats for many living things. Varied landscapes and the close proximity of green spaces to metropolitan cities have been attracting human residents to California for centuries. As urban development increases, native animal habits continue to shrink and the interaction between humans and wildlife becomes more profuse.

This past weekend, HWF visited the Descanso Garden’s Sturt Haaga Gallery,  to view an exhibition entitled “Growing Habitat: LA’s Wildlife & Descanso— an enchanting exhibit that explores the relationship between Los Angeles wildlife and the human residents that share their space.

The walls of the Sturt Haaga Gallery have been decorated with printed information and blown up images that describe the trees, birds, bugs, and larger mammals that are commonly found in LA’s woodlands. Running from now until August 19th, 2018, this interactive display offers visitors a chance to explore wildlife through photography, video, and a number of engaging activities.  Along a corner wall, visitors of all ages can examine tree bark, leaves, and acorns through the lenses of a microscope. The powerful magnification of the microscope transforms what appears to be a simple piece of bark into bevy of furrows and grey lichen that almost looks other worldly.

Lichen is a complex organism made up of fungi and algae that symbiotically grow together. In the wild, you can find gray, green, orange or yellow patches of lichen on trees and rocky surfaces.

 

Lichen growing on a rock in Colorado, CA. Photo Credit: Lola West

Lichen growing on a rock in Colorado, CA. Photo Credit: Lola West

The exhibit, which is presented in partnership with The Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy (AFC), also features a giant floor map, nature journals and a video screening area where guests can view a short documentary that introduces a new method of capturing animal footage using sensor technology­. Highlights of the film include a candid close-up of a coyote that had no idea it was being photographed and a short clip of a mountain lion rubbing up against a rock to scratch an itch it could not reach.

Photo of Wilderness Journal at the Descanso Gardens

Photo of Wilderness Journal at the Descanso Gardens

 

About Descanso Gardens

Founded as a public garden in 1953, Descanso Gardens markets itself as an urban retreat of year-round natural beauty, internationally renowned botanical collections and spectacular seasonal horticultural displays— and we are in agreement!  On a late spring morning, one could catch the end of the camellias, a field full of Matilija poppies, brilliantly-colored cactus flowers, and a bountiful rose garden in full bloom. The garden itself is a buzz with life— from bees and lizards, to bugs and birds—this 400 acres of wild space delivers fun for the whole family.

Dinner Plate Cactus flower at Descanso Gardens

Dinner Plate Cactus flower at Descanso Gardens

Showy Penstemon flower at Descanso Gardens

Showy Penstemon flower at Descanso Gardens

 

Whether you can make it to the exhibit or not, Descanso Gardens allows guests to explore the ways in which humans and nature co-exist, and we strongly recommend a visit!

Learn more about Decanso Gardens here!

Growing Habitat: LA’s Wildlife & Descanso -May 21 – August 19, 2018

Sharks, Scrub Jays, and Lobsters— Studying the Wildlife on California’s Coast

On Wednesday morning, students at Cienega Elementary school excitedly greeted Havasi Wilderness Foundation founder, Marilyn Fordney and HWF Media Communication Specialist Lola West at a presentation of scientific study participation medals that took place in their school library.  Surrounded by heavy traffic on two of its four sides, Cienega Elementary is centered in Los Angeles’s bustling urban environment. Children from the school recently paid a visit to Malibu Lagoon where they learned about the 110 acres of wetland, salty marsh, and tide pools being protected on the California coast. For many of the students at Cienega, this trip offered them the opportunity to see the beach for the very first time. By the end of their field studies, students were well versed on the animals and plants that live in the area where the ocean meets the shore.

After an animated “good morning” greeting from two second and third grade classes, the 50 students gathered in the library were asked to tell us about their favorite experience at the Lagoon. Hands shot up in the air—waving frantically— as eager kids seemed unable to contain their excitement. Little learners expressed their enchantment with the wetlands as they described seeing scrub jays, horn sharks, and lobsters while participating in a scavenger hunt.  Following the discussion around wildlife at the lagoon, each student was awarded a HWF medal and a bookmark. Their enthusiasm to learn more about the coastal environment at Malibu Lagoon, has inspired us to highlight interesting facts about some of their favorites— namely horn sharks, lobsters, and the scrub jays.

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Horn Sharks

Growing to a maximum length of just 3.3 feet, the horn shark is a slow-moving, smaller species of shark that seeks the shelter of dense kelp or sea caves during the day and hunts at night. Once a horn shark finds its home, they pretty much like to stay put. According to available research, the longest distance a horn shark is known to have traveled is just over 10 miles!

Though small in size, horn sharks are fitted with a powerful jaw that helps them consume prey like starfish, sea cucumber, invertebrates and bony fish. Marine biologists have discovered that horn sharks seem to have a particular fondness for crabs and sea urchins— some sharks will eat enough sea urchins to stain their teeth purple!

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Lobster

Lobsters are a type of crustacean (covered by a hard shell or crust) that can be found somewhere between the continental shelf and the sandy shorelines of all the world’s oceans.

A lobster’s body is comprised of a rigid exoskeleton (shell) that must be shed each time they increase in size. This process is known as molting. Before molting begins, lobsters absorb a large amount of water, causing the new shell to swell and eventually breaking down the old one. Without its shell, a lobster is soft, squishy and more vulnerable to attack, so the molting process usually takes place in the safety of their burrows or hiding places.

In the first five to seven years of its life, a lobster will molt somewhere around twenty-five times! After age seven, lobsters shed their shells once or twice a year. The largest lobster ever caught weighed over 44 pounds— now that’s A LOT of molting!

Like the horn shark, lobsters are bottom dwellers that hide in crevices during the daytime and come out to feed at night. Their diet consists of fish, snail, other crustaceans, worms, and plant life. Lobsters are hunted by a number of other species, including the bull shark. When escaping predators, a lobster will swim backward by curling and uncurling its abdomen.

Presently, lobsters are in high demand for fish eaters, and certain measures have been passed to protect the larger “breeding” lobsters from overfishing. In Maine—where lobster fishing is incredibly popular— any lobster over 5” must be returned to the ocean to help maintain the population.

Spiny Lobster by Ed Bierman from CA, usa

Spiny Lobster by Ed Bierman from CA, usa

 

Scrub Jays

Commonly confused as the blue jay, the California scrub jay is an eye-catching blue, gray and white bird that is often spotted flying around the Pacific seaboard. It enjoys spending time in dry shrublands, wood areas, and backyards from the Olympic Peninsula to Baja California.

California scrub jays are known to be rather mischievous— stealing acorns from a woodpecker’ stockpile and even from their fellow jays. In addition to acorns, scrub jays eat ticks and other parasites. If you’re lucky, you can catch the birds standing on the back of a mule deer and picking off its ticks.

The oldest known California Scrub-Jay lived for over 15 years! Tagged in California in 1932, the elderly scrub jay was found in 1948 in the same state (allaboutbirds.com,2018).

 

Art from Cienega student

Art from Cienega student

As we prepared to present students with their medals for excellence in wilderness studies, one young girl asked Marilyn where her interest with nature began. “I grew up surrounded by trees and spent a lot of time outdoors, so I’ve always had a special relationship with nature.”  The importance of spending time out in nature —among the trees, seas, and fields of bees— cannot be overlooked.

We at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation are always grateful to spend time with the next generation of consumers, producers, and wilderness experts. It is important to remember that each and everyone has a connection to the world around us. The harder you work to understand that connection, the better the health of the planet will be. Until next time, remember to GET OUTSIDE AND EXPLORE YOUR WORLD! 

Special thanks to Principal Kimberly Wright, teachers Nina Goebert and Ana McVay, student-teacher Molly Tuthill, parent volunteer Millie Dunbar, and librarian, Phyllis Mcreary for inviting us to meet with the students at Cienega Elementary School. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit!  Thank you to all the students who handed in assignments; we are thrilled to learn about your adventures at the Malibu Lagoon.

Cienega students at the Malibu Lagoon

Cienega students at the Malibu Lagoon

Where Did The Easter Bunny Come From?

Spring is a season of rebirth and renewal. Following a period of fire and ash, the once-charred mountains of Ventura, California have been replenished by the winter rains and are now blanketed in bright-green swaths of grass, honeysuckle, and other budding flowers.  Walking along a path that separates the hillsides from the sea, I can make out repeated streaks of blurring fur in the distance. As I get closer to the action, it becomes nearly impossible to walk without tripping over the rabbits who are zipping across the pathway, seeking shelter in a nearby meadow.

Rabbits are associated with Spring because of the abundance of baby bunnies hopping through the fields in springtime. It s common, during this time to find chocolate renditions of these cute, furry creatures lining the shelves of your local grocery store.

While narrowly avoiding collision with a group of speedy little rabbits, I began to wonder why bunnies have become such a prominent symbol of the Easter holiday. Christian texts make no mention of a preternatural egg-laying rabbit who hides eggs and delivers baskets full of candy-coated chocolates and toys.  How then, did such a mythical figure become synonymous with a religious and cultural holiday?

The origins of the Easter Bunny can be connected to the celebration of the spring equinox and the season of fertility. Before the advent of Christianity, Pagans celebrated spring festivals with the theme of new life and relief from cold winter. In Germany, rabbits— who have traditionally been associated with fertility due to their prolific procreation abilities— were celebrated during springtime as children prepared nests for  Osterhase or Oschter Haws, an egg-laying bunny who would deliver eggs to their homes.

Multiplying like Rabbits

With a gestation period of only 31 days, rabbits can have multiple litters each year— giving birth to up to nine babies at a time!! In the wild, they’re born in a shallow hole that has been lined with collected grass and their momma bunny’s fur. To avoid drawing attention from predators, mother rabbits spend just a few moments each day with their newborns. From birth to four months old, the rabbits grow quickly— doubling in size—  and continue to live with their mothers and siblings.

Coming to America

The Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition overseas. Around the world, different countries associate Easter with a number of animals like the cuckoo bird (Switzerland) or the Osterfuchs (the Easter Fox, Germanic tradition).

Wild Rabbit in Bolsa Chica Wetlands. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Wild Rabbit in Bolsa Chica Wetlands. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

As the meadows blossom with an abundance of life, families give into what has been called the “Easter bunny temptation” and surprise their children with a floppy-eared family addition. Pet stores around the country typically see an increase in the purchase of rabbits shortly before the Easter holiday. Simultaneously, animal shelters are prepping for the influx of rabbits that has become synonymous with the weeks and months following the holiday.  Accustomed to running through acres of wild landscape, pet rabbits require an attention and care which some human families are not prepared to offer. Once families realize how much work goes into raising a bunny,  many surrender them to animal shelters or release them outdoors, where they become victim to harsh environments, starvation, or predators.

Bunnies can live 10 years or more, so when planning to adopt one, make sure you’re ready for some serious responsibility. Before finding a furry companion, research the type of care that bunnies need and visit your local shelter or rabbit rescue group to help save the bunnies who have been abandoned by others.

If you’re not ready to adopt a rabbit, take a springtime walk outside and stay alert. If you’re lucky, you will be able to appreciate some of the speedy rabbits making their way across your path.  As always, remember to get outside and explore our world.

 

Rabbit in the garden.

Rabbit in the garden.

The Hunt For Rhino Horns: Wildlife Protectors Dehorn Rhinos to Save Their Lives

The war for rhino horns has nearly wiped out entire population of black rhino. Wildlife crime—in this case, the black-market trafficking of rhino horn—continues to plague the species and threaten its recovery. In one year’s time, poachers in South Africa managed to kill over 1200 rhinos. This is their story:


In Africa’s wildlife preserves, rhinoceroses are being slain for their horns which have become more valuable than gold. Today, horns can sell for up to $76,000 a kilogram and the stakes for poachers to deliver horns to the market is higher than ever. Though it is possible to remove a rhinoceros’ horn without fatality, the poacher’s pursuit most commonly ends in the rhino’s death. According to reports from CBS news, over 1,200 rhinos were slaughtered in 2016 to meet the mounting demands of the black market.

Black Rhino. Source: Creative Commons Zero

Black Rhino. Source: Creative Commons Zero

 

The trade of rhino horns is driven primarily by Vietnam and China, where horns are perceived to cure cancer, enhance virility and prevent hangovers. However, no evidence has ever verified that rhino horn has any healing power at all.  In fact, a rhino’s horn is composed primarily of keratin, the same substance found in your nails and the hair on your head.  Some have argued that based on composition, a remedy made from the hair and nail clippings could have the same “healing properties” as the horn of a rhino. The hype over the remedial influences of horns has gotten so out of control that at least three rhinos are killed every day in South Africa. This ongoing poaching crisis calls for efforts to save rhinos to move at an increasing rate.

Less than 2,300 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) remain in the wild, making them one of Africa’s most endangered species. During the height of their population, black rhinos numbered in the hundreds of thousands of animals roaming throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 20th century, European settlements and unregulated hunting reduced the population dramatically. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers declined by an overwhelming 98%, to less than 2,500. Like Africa’s white rhino, whose populations total somewhere around 20,000- black rhinos have between two and three horns that line the bridge of their face. Unlike the white rhino— which uses its square jaw to feed on grass, the shape of the black rhino’s rounded jaw allows them to feed on fruits from trees as well as grasses.

Black Rhino. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Black Rhino. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

As the unfounded belief in the healing properties of rhino horn continues to swell, rhino populations are increasingly jeopardized.  At the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa, veterinarians, pilots, and game capture specialists are working to save the rhino by cutting off their horns before the poachers can get to them. This seemingly unconventional method removes the bounty from the rhino’s head by taking what the poachers want most before they have a chance to snatch it.  To remove the horns, specialist track the animals in an aircraft, shoot them with a tranquilizer dart, blindfold them, and saw through the thick layers of their horns. Veterinarians performing the procedures insist that the animals are well sedated and cannot feel the removal, likening it to the clipping of a toenail.  The 3,000 pound mammals are then airlifted to secret locations in Botswana where they are monitored and protected by a team of environmental defenders.  Over time, the rhino’s horns will grow back, but skeptics are left wondering whether removing the horn does more damage than good. For dehorning to be effective, it must be coupled with extensive anti-poaching security and monitoring efforts. Yet since dehorning began, poachers have continued to target the rhino and have been known to kill over the small stumps that remain.  It seems that as long as there is a demand for rhino horn, the poachers will find a way to fill it.

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.