Elephants are still in danger. Fall 2018

AWF Calls for International Support to Combat Elephant Poaching Crisis

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Because of their inability to set in place drastic ivory reform in a speedy manner, the eastern half of the world fuels the largest percentage of the ivory market . The US over the years has played an active role in reducing the demand for ivory by reforming their import, export and sales of ivory. The question though, is should you feel guilty about owning ivory when you see stories of how it could have been obtained centuries ago? Should you donate your ivory to an ivory crush and watch the guilt float away? The artifacts that you hold in your home, offices, and museums are beautiful and should cherished. You can’t save the elephant that provided the ivory a century ago. We can’t do anything for the elephants of the past, but we can help those that are still alive. America is actively playing a part in reforming our laws against the fueling of the ivory market. Now it is up to the rest of the world to follow.

By Emily Duffy, Intern, ArtTrak, Inc.

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According to the Great Elephant Census, Botswana holds 37% of Africa’s endangered elephant population, making it home to the largest population in the world. Despite the lack of fences on the international border, data from tracking collars showed elephants retreating from Angola, Namibia and Zambia and deciding to stay within the boundaries of Botswana where it was thought to be safe. With only 130,000 elephants, Botswana has been described as their last sanctuary in Africa as poaching for ivory continues to wipe out herds across the rest of the continent.

The dry season aerial survey of elephants and wildlife in northern Botswana (covering Chobe, Okavango, Ngamiland and North Central District) has already identified 87 elephants that have been killed in just a few months. The elephant carcasses were found near the Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, the majority of which died in recent weeks. Contrary to what local and international media has reported on the matter, the Permanent Secretary Thato Y. Raphaka, in a statement released early this week, said that, “At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana. These statistics however represent cumulative incidences of elephant carcasses during the conduct of the survey as early as July through August.” The survey is expected to end by 30th September 2018 and conservationists fear the final findings of the elephants will be a lot higher.

An ivory demand is fueling the poaching of elephants, and it’s often carved into jewelry, utensils, religious figurines and trinkets that can be sold for thousands of dollars on the black market. As many as 35,000 African elephants are killed each year, and census estimates reveal that a third of Africa's elephants have been killed in the last decade alone. 60% of Tanzania's elephants have been lost in five years.

AWF’s Vice President for Species Protection Dr. Philip Muruthi said this was devastating news for conservation and emphasized the need to assist range states to conserve elephants.

“We are still in a poaching crisis and it is not time to relax. Each range state and partners must remain vigilant. Poachers and traffickers are monitoring law enforcement, and any relaxation in effort exposes elephants to poachers. It’s important to be proactive even as we react to the threat of poaching. Botswana is known for strict law enforcement of wildlife protection, high level of support, and involvement of communities and the private sector, and we need to support their efforts.” said Dr. Muruthi.

Wildlife trafficking unfortunately keeps the poaching industry alive, and so AWF’s Canines for Conservation program combats this demand by deploying detection dogs and their handlers to key airports and seaports throughout the continent. The sniffer dogs can detect even the smallest amounts of wildlife contraband—like ivory or rhino horn dust—stopping traffickers before they can export the illegal products abroad. So far, there are canine units strategically located in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and soon to be deployed to Botswana this year.


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How Teeth Became Tusks, and Tusks Became Liabilities

Humans, mice, narwhals — most mammals rely on ancient genes to produce teeth and tusks. But the tuskless elephants of Africa show that nature can quickly alter the code.

By Natalie Angier

Sept. 11, 2018

GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK, Mozambique — We are flying in a Bat Hawk aircraft — which may be named for a raptor that preys on bats but looks more like a giant, lime-green dragonfly — and my hair, thanks to the open cockpit, has gone full Phyllis Diller.

Scudding above flood plains the color of worn pool table felt and mud flats split like jigsaw puzzles, we dip toward the treetops and see herds of waterbuck scatter with an impatient flash of their bull’s-eye rumps.

We are searching for the elusive tuskless elephants of Gorongosa, elephants that naturally lack the magnificent ivory staffs all too tragically coveted by wealthy collectors worldwide.

Tuskless elephants can be found in small numbers throughout Africa, but Gorongosa is known to harbor a sizable population of them, the legacy of a violent 15-year civil war. Tusked elephants were slaughtered for their ivory at a harrowing rate, and the park’s rare tusk-free residents thus gained a sudden Darwinian advantage.

Today, about a quarter of the park’s 700 or so elephants are tuskless, all of them female, and I am determined to catch a glimpse of at least one. Yet a week of ground searches has proved fruitless, and now we are circling in a plane and still nothing and, holy mother of Horton, how can such massive creatures go missing?

“There!” Alfredo Matavele, the pilot, cries triumphantly, pointing toward a cluster of trees. “And there!” pointing toward a watering hole. And there and there. “Do you see them?” he demands.

Oh yes, I see them. Dozens, scores, cliques and claques of elephants, ears flapping like flags, trunks slowly swinging, and many of their faces decidedly free of ivory eruptions. I have found them at last, my sisters in dental deprivation.

Other people may admire elephants for their brains or their complex social lives; I feel a bond with this mutant crew. After all, I’ve learned that we share a basic developmental anomaly, which may well be traceable to the same underlying glitches in our DNA.

Elephant tusks happen to be overgrown versions of the upper lateral incisors — the teeth right next to the front teeth, before you get to the canines. Simply put, tuskless elephants lack lateral incisors.

I, too, lack lateral incisors; moreover, the trait runs in families. Tuskless elephants often have tuskless kin. Both my daughter and my younger brother are missing their lateral incisors. No wonder we’ve always had trouble ripping the bark off trees.

Scientists do not yet know the precise cause of tusklessness, but they’ve made great progress in deciphering the genetic program behind mammalian tooth development generally. It turns out to be an old and widely shared code.

“Tooth development has been very conserved during evolution,” said Irma Thesleff, a developmental biologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland. She has found that mutations associated with tooth abnormalities in mice also show up in genetic studies of people with missing or malformed teeth.

“Elephants are no more different from humans than mice are,” Dr. Thesleff said, “so it’s quite possible that the same gene or genes are involved” in elephant tusklessness and human toothlessness.

For example, it could be a typographical error in the genetic code for a signaling molecule called wnt10a. “This is one of the most commonly mutated genes in humans with missing teeth,” Dr. Thesleff said.

And oh, we gap-mouths are everywhere. An estimated 8 percent of the population is missing one or more of the 32 teeth found in the standard adult set, and that figure rises to about 30 percent if you include a natural absence of the four extra wisdom teeth that many people get yanked out anyway.

Missing lateral incisors is thought to be the second most common form of so-called tooth agenesis. One archaeological study of a 9,000-year-old farming community in Basta, Jordan, found that 36 percent of the inhabitants lacked lateral incisors. Researchers viewed the elevated rate as evidence of inbreeding.

The normal background rate of the condition is more like 2 percent to 4 percent, which, coincidentally or otherwise, is close to the background rate of tusklessness among African elephants.

Even more common in humans than a lack of lateral incisors, said Ariadne Letra, an associate professor at the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, is the absence of the lower second premolars, the teeth with two cusps located in the bottom jaw just before the four-cusped molars.

(I discovered in the course of reporting this story that my husband was born without his second premolars, so I guess I’m grateful my daughter has any teeth at all.)

Through animal studies, scientists have learned that teeth can grow in macabre isolation from other body systems, as though they yearned for a career as novelty dentures at a Halloween party. Isaac Salazar-Ciudad, a theoretical biologist who studies tooth development at the University of Helsinki, explained that if you remove part of the primordial mouth of a mouse embryo and culture it in a dish, it will develop an array of normal-looking mouse teeth.

Although the basic genetic program is widely shared, tooth building is also flexible, susceptible to evolutionary influences.

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Teeth develop through the interaction of two types of embryonic tissue, epithelial and mesenchymal, which early in gestation — by about Day 28 in humans — start folding up into each other origami-style to form a series of large and small buds. Those buds can then be sharpened into canines or incisors for slicing into flesh, or flattened and sculpted into molars with any number of cusps for processing high-fiber plants.

The core of a tooth, the pulp, holds the blood vessels and nerve fibers, while the bulk consists of a bone-like material called dentin. The outer coating of calcium phosphate enamel is the hardest substance in the body, which is why animal teeth account for a disproportionate share of the fossil record.

And when lengthened into structures that breach the boundary of the mouth and grow throughout life, teeth become tusks — for digging, fighting, hauling, piercing, threat display.

The diversity of shapes that teeth can assume, combined with their mineralized hardness, said Dr. Salazar-Ciudad, “could be why they have been repurposed as tusks and used for so many tasks.”

In most cases, tusks are recast canines, curving to the side and upward in wild boars and warthogs, or drooping down in walruses like Yosemite Sam’s mustache. In narwhals, the unicorns of the Arctic, the tusk is built of a single overgrown canine that penetrates through the narwhal’s left upper lip in a permanent open wound, which ends up hosting tiny shrimplike creatures with an appetite for shed whale skin.

The narwhal tusk “is the only straight tusk in nature, and the only spiral tusk, too,” said Martin Thomas Nweeia, a narwhal expert who lectures at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

Tusks, as a rule, are multipurpose devices. Boars and warthogs apply theirs offensively and defensively, to battle one another during mating season and to gore predators many times their size.

Walruses use their tusks like grappling hooks, to haul themselves out of the water and onto the ice, and as weapons against polar bears and in sexual contests — but not, as commonly believed, to forage for food or pry open oysters.

The purpose of the narwhal’s tusk remains a subject of contention. Some researchers suggest the whales use it to stun their fish prey. Dr. Nweeia and his co-workers propose that it is a kind of sensory organ, for detecting changes in water salinity and temperature.

Elephants are the true masters of the Swiss Army tusk. They use their mighty incisors to dig for salts and minerals, to break off branches and get at the foliage, to pry into trees and peel off the bark — “They really love to eat bark,” said Joyce Poole, scientific director of Elephant Voices, a research and advocacy group working at Gorongosa — to scoop an errant calf out of a mudhole or lift a sleeping one to its feet.

They coordinate tusks, trunks and feet to de-thorn acacia trees and soften tough grasses, and they stash leafy branches across their ivory shelves for later consumption.

Just as people are left- or right-handed, so elephants have a favored tusk. “If they’re going to break a branch over a tusk, they use the same tusk repeatedly,” Dr. Poole said. A groove forms in the preferred tusk over time.

But it can take two tusks to tangle. From my perch in the Bat Hawk, I watched a pair of large bull elephants spar by locking together their massive tusks, which can weigh well over 100 pounds each — seven times the weight of an average female tusk.

Yet the biophysical properties that make tusks such splendid tools to own have all too often proved their owners’ undoing. People have long coveted ivory for its beauty, ductility and presumed magical properties.

The first appearance of narwhal tusks in medieval Europe is thought to have given rise to the myth of the unicorn, and to a mad surge in demand for the nine-foot spiraling spears. Elizabeth I is said to have paid 10,000 pounds for a narwhal tusk, then the price of an average castle.

The drive to harvest walrus ivory may well have contributed to the settlement of Greenland in the 10th century, and led to the near extinction of walrus populations around Norway, Iceland and other parts of the North Atlantic.

Elephant ivory, however, is considered the finest in the world, and elephants have long been slaughtered to supply it. Despite international efforts to ban the ivory trade, demand still drives a business worth at least a billion dollars a year.

The persistence of elephant poaching has prompted researchers to wonder whether elephants really needed their tusks, and whether they might not be better off if the tuskless trait were to spread more widely through the African population.

Shane Campbell-Staton, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues have begun systematically comparing tusked and tuskless elephants in Gorongosa, seeking not only to identify the genes involved in tusklessness but also to solve perplexing patterns of inheritance.

Why, for example, are nearly all the tuskless elephants of Africa female? Among Asian elephants, a related species, many males are tuskless, and recent studies suggest they fare surprisingly well on the sexual battlefield when pitted against tusked rivals.

Dr. Campbell-Staton is also looking at downstream effects of tusklessness.

“We know tusks play an important role in obtaining food,” he said, “so if individuals don’t have that tool, are they using the environment differently, and could those changes have consequences for other animals dependent on elephants as ecosystem engineers?”

Maybe, but from the look of it, the tuskless elephants of Gorongosa are thriving. “They’re in fantastic condition, this is a very good habitat for them, and there’s no indication they’re suffering nutritionally,” Dr. Poole said.

Lateral incisors: who needs them? Better by far to keep the poachers at bay.

Natalie Angier became a columnist for Science Times in January 2007. She joined The Times in 1990, covering genetics, evolutionary biology, medicine and other subjects, and was awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in Beat Reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 10, 2018, on Page D1 of the New York edition


Japan’s legal ivory markets are fueling the international ivory trade

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The shutdown of ivory sales on Rakuten-Ichiba, one of Japan’s largest e-commerce platforms, in August 2017 blazed a trail for other online shopping sites selling and auctioning ivory. Some mall retailers even revised their policies to close shops trading ivory, but few online shopping sites have taken the same path as Rakuten — most notably Japan.

Now the country’s biggest online marketplace for various ivory products — including whole elephant tusks — Japan supports the country’s booming domestic market, with up to US $27 million worth of ivory put up for sale in the last 10 years. While the e-commerce giant has made some attempts to monitor the ivory items sold on its sites, dealers are still taking advantage of Japan’s lax trade laws.

In Japan, ivory tusks must be registered before a sale, but the process has remained dangerously lenient. Owners do not need to provide verifiable proof of how, where, or when the elephant tusk was acquired. This means that even if it was obtained after the CITES 1989 international ivory trade ban and therefore illicit, the tusk can easily slip into Japan’s legal domestic market.

Worryingly, registration is required for tusks only — other ivory items are traded regardless of origin and acquisition. Since these products are regulated if owned by a commercial entity, many dealers on shopping or auction sites identify as individuals rather than businesses. The registered tusks are not marked or physically inspected, leaving retailers with few ways of determining whether it belonged to a poached elephant before it ended up on their sites or shelves.

Regional strategies to combat the illegal ivory trade

In the wake of China’s recent domestic ivory ban, the Japanese government has yet to tighten its ivory trade controls categorically. Despite being the top ivory consumer, China adopted the resolution at the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties one year prior calling for the closure of all ivory markets that contribute to the illegal trade. Hong Kong has also pledged to close its domestic market by 2020.

In June 2017, Japan increased penalties for non-compliance and mandated the registration of whole tusks owned by an ivory business. However, these amendments to its Law for the Conservation of the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora do little to limit illegal ivory trade within the domestic market.

According to a 2017 TRAFFIC survey monitoring ivory trade on Japan’s auction site, the value of ivory products rose over the last three years. Criminal syndicates linking ivory from Japan to regional consumers smuggle these products, feeding black markets in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Between 2010 and 2012, one such syndicate trafficked 3.2 tons of ivory from Japan to China — all of which was obtained through Yahoo’s online shopping site.

Without a streamlined ivory ban extending across consumer countries, Africa’s elephants will remain victims of this illegal wildlife trade.