Archive for March, 2014

Breeding, beatings and conservation white elephants

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

On 11th March, Twycross Zoo announced the birth of a female Asian elephant to 18 year-old female Noorjahan, as a result of artificial insemination. The Zoo has been quick to celebrate and publicise the news of the new arrival, but let’s recap on their recent chequered history with elephants.

Young elephants in zoos are at serious risk of contracting Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), for which there is currently no vaccine nor reliable cure. Since 2000, EEHV has been implicated in the deaths of at least 16 elephants in zoos and circuses in Europe, including 10 in zoos in the UK. Twycross Zoo has previously reported at least 2 possible cases of elephant calves dying from the disease.  Noorjahan’s last pregnancy, also the result of artificial insemination, ended in tragedy when the baby died of suspected EEHV at 20 months.

Elephant management practices at the park have also recently been called into question. In 2012, the Zoo sacked three elephant keepers for allegedly beating the elephants, with some reports indicating that Noorjahan was one of the elephants involved. The incident was reported to the police who arrested the former keepers on suspicion of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, although last year the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to charge two of the keepers under the Animal Welfare Act.

Disease, premature deaths, beatings: it paints a sorry picture of life at Twycross. Fingers crossed for the new arrival.

Many zoos claim that captive-breeding of Asian elephants contributes to the conservation of the species but evidence suggests that more elephants die in captivity than are born so there is little prospect of the captive population ever actually contributing elephants to the wild. In truth the Asian elephant will only survive if measures are taken to fully protect and conserve the species in its natural habitat. Clearly were a fraction of the massive amounts of money spent on keeping elephants in zoos (the Los Angeles Zoo recently spent over $42 million on its new 2.1 acre enclosure) then a long term future for wild Asian elephants might be assured.

Further information:

Whalefest! The very word thrills!

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

A time for people who care about the future of whales and dolphins to come together to bond and to acknowledge the challenges faced by these extraordinary species in captivity and in the wild and to seek solutions.

Whalefest is taking over Brighton from the afternoon of 14th – 17th March and to kick it off, on Friday afternoon, a life-size inflatable orca (we do not say killer whale where I come from) will be trundled around Brighton, ending up at Hove Lawns on Friday, early evening.

I am honoured and delighted to be taking part in this extraordinary gathering.

On Saturday, at 1.15 pm in the Hilton Metropole, I will be pretending to be a ‘Dimbleby’, helping to host a special kind of Question Time with prospective European Parliamentary candidates for the south-east of England and marine mammal experts. Together we will explore (I hope) the environmental agenda of our politicians and try to address the concerns of WhaleFest visitors.

You have the chance to make your voice heard too and I invite you to submit your questions to me via the comment section below, and I will try and make sure that the most thought-provoking questions are asked on your behalf.

Saturday evening (again at the Hilton Metropole, at 8.00 pm) I am taking part in a panel discussion with some of the world’s top experts following the presentation of excerpts from the extraordinary documentary Blackfish which has shaken the captive marine mammal industry to its core.  If you have not seen Blackfish and you can’t make it on Saturday, you can buy a copy here.

I am certainly looking forward to having a whale of a time in Brighton this weekend.  I hope you can be there too.

Blogging off


Farming Elephants: Will Travers Responds

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Simon Jenkins: “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February)

A Response: Will Travers OBE. Founder The Born Free Foundation.

Simon Jenkins compared the bloody ivory trade and the scourge of rhino and elephant poaching with the trade in cocaine.

In two respects, he is right.

Ivory and rhino horn are expensive – so is cocaine

Ivory and rhino horn trade costs lives – so does the trade in illegal class A drugs.

But in almost every other respect his analogy is way off the mark.

Global organised crime syndicates ruthlessly exploit the miserable, addictive nature of drugs to make massive profits. Ivory is not a drug, it is not addictive. It is an item of adornment, a middle class status-symbol, and it is human vanity and greed that the cartels exploit to make a killing.

In his article “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February) Mr Jenkins dismissed the recent High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade as a junket for the elite, focussed on issues that few care about deeply. Extraordinarily, he suggested that the meeting enslaved Africans once more!

Bizarrely, he bemoaned the destruction of ivory stocks in the US, China and France as equivalent to ‘medieval princes burning food to taunt starving subjects’, claiming it was the waste of a resource that could be sold to support conservation.

He carefully avoided reporting the string of ivory stockpile destructions that have taken place in Africa by Africans – in Kenya, Gabon, Zambia – and soon to take place in Tchad, Ethiopia, Tanzania and possibly others.

He characterised the London summit as a meeting of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It was not. Meetings of the 180 signatory countries to CITES take place every 3 years (the last in Bangkok, March 2013, I was there, as I have been at every CITES meeting since 1989) and this was not one of them. He loosely describes CITES as the “world wildlife organisation”. It is not. It is a wildlife trade control agreement which, despite its many flaws, is the only internationally-binding accord that can control and, if necessary, stop legal trade if that trade threatens the survival of a species.

When it comes to the history of the ivory trade his recollection is simply mystifying, especially since it has been so well-documented. Far for the international ivory trade ban (agreed in 1989 by, yes, CITES) leading to elephant numbers halving and the prices of raw ivory soaring, the price of illegal ivory fell through the floor and, across Africa, elephant numbers stabilised or started to recover.

It was the limited re-opening of trade, not the banning of it, that eradicated those hard-won gains. In 2008, it was the foolish decision (in which the UK government of the day was involved) to allow over 100 tonnes of ivory to be legally sold from Southern African stockpiles to Japan, and more particularly, China, that has stimulated the industrial levels of poaching, the soaring quantities of smuggled ivory and the massive escalation in price that now place the species at such fatal risk across much of its range.

He suggests that the recent extraordinary spike in rhino poaching was as a result of a CITES-inspired trade ban (applied in the 1970’s). Incorrect. In fact, the opposite may be true. The legalising of limited rhino trophy hunting, a measure fully exploited by criminality (including the use of pseudo hunters and Thai prostitutes to shoot the animals), has contributed to a situation whereby while 13 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2007, 1004 were poached there in 2013 – a 7000% increase.

He extolls the virtues of community based natural resource management (CBNRM) programmes like CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, where local communities were supposedly advanced and enriched through autonomous, localised exploitation of their natural resources (including wildlife), but conveniently avoids reporting that the programme is controversial, widely discredited and required US$45 million in donor support while delivering less than US$10 million to local communities (1989-1996)

He asserts that the annual selling of 5 rhino trophies in Namibia (the latest being sold at auction in Dallas, Texas, for $350,000) make ‘far more than photography tourism could ever generate’.  Let’s be clear: the total trophy hunting revenue claimed by the trophy hunting industry itself (not exactly an impartial source) for all of Africa is $200 million a year, half generated in South Africa. Kenya alone generates about $1billion a year from non-consumptive wildlife-based photo tourism and employs hundreds of thousands of people into the bargain.

He applauds the views of Michael t’Sas-Rolfe and his ‘powerful’ case for farming ranched rhino horn. He should have heard Mr t’Sas-Rolfe’s rudimentary economic theory (there is no ‘basic law of economics’) brilliantly dismantled by Alejandro Nada, (the eminent Mexican economist) at the Symposium on Wildlife Trade held at the Zoological Society of London, the day before the London Summit.

There is no simplistic ‘supply and demand’ paradigm at play here. It is all about risk. We don’t know the size of the market; we don’t know the drivers of the market; we don’t know how elastic that market is (how much people are willing to spend before price starts to have an impact on demand). As Nick Herbert MP said recently in a debate on wildlife trade in the House of Commons ‘we need to choke demand, not stoke it’, and that legitimizing trade is likely to stimulate demand not satisfy it. The ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy, so eloquently championed by Robert Mugabe (not renowned for sound economic practices), is dangerously naive.

Far from shackling Africa to the whimsy of a new breed of eco-colonialists (Mr Jenkins’ remarks about the ability of western conservation charities to hold sway over the sovereign rights of African nations are quite fantastical), the London conference was significant because it respected the views of the majority of African nations who do not support a return to ivory or rhino horn trade; because it secured international continuity of effort to bear down on organised wildlife crime, the proceeds of which increasingly end up fuelling rebel militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army; because it established new conservation funding streams, including the Elephant Protection Initiative, linked to destruction of stockpiles; because it recognised the central role that those countries with elephants and rhino have in securing a future for their wildlife species, in particular Africa’s blueprint for elephant conservation – created and agreed by all 38 elephant range States – the African Elephant Action Plan.

He did not acknowledge the real life impact of the ivory trade on real, live elephants. Up to 50,000 gunned down a year (meaning a net loss in elephant numbers of around 30,000 a year); the macabre, putrid mass of bones and skin that stains the African earth after the poachers have gone (and which I have witnessed at first hand time and again); the orphaned calves left to starve; entire herds eradicated by the ubiquitous AK47; the grieving survivors.

He suggests tusks could, in some way be removed (harvested) from living elephants. Fantasy. Elephants need and use their tusks as part of their survival strategy for stripping bark to eat, mining for salt, digging for water. The males use them to joust for social dominance. And each tusk has a massive nerve running 30% of its length, in a big tusk as thick as a human arm, which would have to be left intact leaving enough ivory to tempt poachers – who don’t care about the nerve!

So for these and many other reasons, Mr Jenkins, whose commentary is usually so perceptive, is all at sea when it comes to the wildlife trade and the notion that species such as elephants can be ‘farmed’. Incidentally elephants fail to thrive in captivity (captive populations in zoos around the world are on their way out as the number bred don’t replace the number that die) and suffer all sorts of physical and behavioural problems.

Africa’s conservationists know what to do to save elephants. Marketing gurus know what to do to drive down and eradicate demand for ivory. Many politicians, including our own Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, are willing to make the political commitment. Rangers and wardens remain willing to put themselves between the poacher’s bullet and its intended target. The resources still need to be funded.

Mr Jenkins, there is two simple truths. Ivory is not cocaine and elephants are not cattle.

** An edited version of this article was published in The Guardian on Monday 3rd March 2014

Donate to Born Free’s ‘Elephant Emergency’ Appeal today

3rd March 2014 is the first World Wildlife Day

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

This comes at a time when the future survival of wildlife and wild places seems to have assumed a high priority on the international agenda. The weight of incidents, events, meetings and tragedies simply cannot be ignored.

The London Summit on Illegal Wildlife Trade aimed at tackling the massive impact of serious, organised wildlife crime on species as diverse as elephants, rhino, sharks, tigers, lions, pangolins and more;

The announcement that Iraq has become the 180th country to join CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora);

The ongoing misery of Arturo, the Polar bear in Argentina’s Mendoza Zoo;

The news that a Ugandan High Court Judge has released nearly 3 tonnes of ivory to a Congolese businessman;

The destruction of Marius, the young giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo (‘surplus to requirements’)

Confirmation from Tanzania that plans to build a highly-controversial highway through the world-famous Serengeti National Park are relentlessly advancing.

That some of the world’s most iconic species, and the habitats they rely on for their survival, face a crisis is now widely accepted. However, what to do about it remains the subject of fierce debate.

Some say ‘use it or lose it’ (a phrase made famous by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) and frequently used by advocates of trophy hunting, the continued trade in wildlife products and the weakening of environmental protection laws. They argue that regulated forms of wildlife and environmental exploitation generate money for developing countries, help meet the needs of local communities, support conservation and sustain species.

Others look at it a different way. They (and I am one of them) contend that there are now ‘so many of us’ and ‘so few of them’ that, leaving aside the ethical dimension for a moment, the risks to species from ongoing and relentless commercial exploitation; the ability of wildlife crime to use any legal trade as a smokescreen for industrial-scale corruption and illegal trade; the rapacious demands of increasingly affluent end-user markets;  and the truly global scale of the problem, mean we have to consider an alternative approach.

If we, as a species (with the power over life and death, survival or extinction,  for all life on earth) value wildlife, not because of the money we can make from it but for the intrinsic values it offers and the role it plays in dynamic, evolving ecosystems, then we need to pay for it.

The parallel I would draw is with the Arts. Even in these austere times, the UK government believes that the Arts are such an important part in the fabric of our society that they will spend £350 million of tax-payers money subsidising and supporting them. All over the world, many countries do the same in recognition of the fact that the richness of human creativity and expression would be diminished or lost if entrusted only to commercial imperatives. No government support? No experimental theatre, no independent films, no free, open-to-all, museums….

Well, in my view, wildlife species are the natural treasures of the world and we need to treat them in the same way we treat the Arts. After all, the UK can find £45 billion for High Speed 2 (a new rail link from London to Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city); Russia spent tens of billions on the Olympic Games; the US spends over £400 billion a year on its military budget, over 5 times that of China.

It’s not that we don’t have the resources, it’s how we decide to spend them. We have a choice.

World Wildlife Day on 3rd March may just turn out to be the focus we need to reconsider our current trajectory of planetary annihilation and step back and try something new.

So although 3rd March is certainly a date for your calendar, I hope that, together with Born Free, you decide to go one step further and make each and every day your World Wildlife Day. It’s time for a change and there isn’t a moment to lose!

Blogging off

Will Travers OBE
President Born Free Foundation

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