I have been reading Sharon Levy's Once And Future Giants — What Ice Age extinctions tell us about the fate of Earth's largest animals. I will discuss Ice Age megafaunal extinctions tomorrow. Today I discuss the slaughter of elephants in contemporary times, and touch on the slaughter of sharks, which are also among the Earth's largest animals.
The story in the BBC's African elephant poaching threatens wildlife future does not require an elaborate explanation.
In both cases, the elephants' faces had been hacked off to remove the tusks. The rest was left to the maggots and the flies.
"That is a big number for one single incident," said Samuel Takore of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). "We have not had such an incident in recent years, I think dating back to before I joined the service."
Mr Takore joined in the 1980s, and his observations corroborate a wider pattern: across Africa, elephant poaching is now at its highest for 20 years.
During the 1980s, more than half of Africa's elephants are estimated to have been wiped out, mostly by poachers hunting for ivory.
But in January 1990, countries around the world signed up to an international ban on the trade in ivory. Global demand dwindled in the face of a worldwide public awareness campaign.
Elephant populations began to swell again.
But in recent years, those advances have been reversed.
An estimated 25,000 elephants were killed in 2011. The figures for 2012 are still being collated, but they will almost certainly be higher still.
Once again, we see that "progress" in some area of human behavior has been reversed. It is not hard to figure out why.
"China is the main buyer of ivory in the world," said Dr Esmond Martin, a conservationist and researcher who has spent decades tracking the movement of illegal ivory around the world.
He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted a visual survey of ivory on sale in the city of Lagos. His findings are startling.
Dr Martin and his colleagues counted more than 14,000 items of worked and raw ivory in one location, the Lekki Market in Lagos. The last survey, conducted at the same market in 2002, counted about 4,000 items, representing a three-fold increase in a decade.
According to the findings of the investigation, which has been shared exclusively with the BBC, Nigeria is at the centre of a booming trade in illegal African ivory.
In 2011, the Nigerian government introduced strict legislation to clamp down on the ivory trade, making it illegal to display, advertise, buy or sell ivory.
And yet, says Dr Martin, Lagos has now become the largest retail market for illegal ivory in Africa.
"There's ivory moving all the way from East Africa, from Kenya into Nigera," he said. "Nigerians are exporting tusks to China. Neighbouring countries are exporting a lot of worked ivory items (to Nigeria).
"So it's a major entrepot for everything from tusks coming in, tusks going out, worked ivory going in, worked ivory going out, worked ivory being made."
The most important difference between 1990, when a ban on the international ivory trade was put in place, and the last five years, when the wholesale slaughter of elephants resumed, is the greater economic prosperity that many in China and south Asia now enjoy. With prosperity comes accelerated demand for items that humans (in particular cultures) view as desirable—ivory from elephants, and fins from sharks.
Feb. 6, 2013 — The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced February 6 that a national park, once home to Africa's largest forest elephant population, has lost a staggering 11,100 individuals due to poaching for the ivory trade.
The shocking figures come from Gabon's Minkebe Park, where recent surveys of areas within the park revealed that two thirds of its elephants have vanished since 2004. The majority of these losses have probably taken place in the last five years.
Gabon contains over half of Africa's forest elephants, with a population estimated at over 40,000.
Sharks are caught for their fins for use in shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia. The fins are cut off with the dead carcass being thrown back into the sea. Sharks grow slowly and take years to reproduce, which makes them vulnerable to overfishing.
The researchers estimated that global reported catches, unreported landings, discards and sharks caught and thrown back after their fins were cut off – a process known as finning – added up to 97 million fish caught in 2010.
The figure is only slightly less than the estimated 100 million caught in 2000, and could be anywhere between 63 million sharks and 273 million a year, according to research by North American scientists published in the journal Marine Policy.
It is estimated that between 6.4% and 7.9% of all sharks are killed each year, leading to decline in the number of some species.
Boris Worm, one of the report's authors, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, said: "Biologically, sharks simply can't keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species in our lifetime."
We do not need to study the human-caused extinctions of large animals when the last Ice Age was winding down to understand the fate of large animals on Earth in the 21st century. Extinctions of large animals follow the growth of human populations and economies like night follows day. Regarding mammoths and elephants, the only real difference is that 13,000 years ago mammoths were slaughtered for food and skins. In the 21st century, elephants are slaughtered for their tusks.
Understanding this extinction problem is not hard. The issue is not complicated. The issue is straightforward. It is obvious. It is so obvious, it is so straightforward, that only obtuse humans, which is almost all of them, and often the same ones who are causing these extinctions, can not comprehend it.
Humans are killing these large animals off because that's what humans do, given half the chance, and a burning desire to do so.
In this context, humans being blind (clueless) about who they are will be my subject tomorrow.