Shelby: Nicknamed ‘white gold,’ illegal ivory is a billion dollar business. It is part of the fourth largest illegal trade in the world. Today, we begin a series looking at the dark side of ivory and the toll it is taking on animals that die for it. Tom Hanson traveled to Africa, to the nation of Kenya, to investigate.
Tom: Tsavo East National Park…a magnificent sweeping landscape with countless exotic animals. The park is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, but we have come here to find one creature that is vanishing.
Nine elephants. That is a lot of elephants.
The African elephant is the largest land mammal on the planet and an icon in the sub-Saharan wilderness. Known for its keen intelligence and strength, it can grow up to seven tons.
Is it about to charge?
In the wild, elephants use their ivory tusks to fight off predators. But those same tusks have also made them a target.
You can see that the tusks on these things – even if they are relatively young – they grow big tusks. And the bigger the tusk, the more valuable it is to poachers. They don’t care if it is old or if it is young; they will kill indiscriminately, really.
Millions of African elephants used to roam the earth, but in the last few decades numbers have declined to less than half a million. And every year, an estimated 30,000 are slaughtered by poachers – hunters who kill elephants illegally.
Looks like we are here.
We met up with the Kenya Wildlife Service, rangers who patrol this area, protecting the elephants from poachers. They show us what they call a kill site.
Oh! That just kind of hit me like a wall! I am literally about to puke.
A dead elephant killed by poachers and found by rangers a day ago.
These tusks are so deeply embedded in the skull of the elephant that, a lot of times when poachers kill the elephant, they just mutilate the face and hack out those tusks. And all just for those ivory tusks. The rest of it is just left to rot.
The tusks, worth thousands of dollars each on the black market, can be made into almost anything, from trinkets to large statues worth millions. They are sold mostly in Asia, but also in the U.S. The trade in new ivory was banned in 1989 after the elephant population dropped to record lows. And for a while, it was a success. After the ban, elephant populations began to grow, but the recovery didn’t last very long. In the last few years there has been a dramatic surge in poaching. In fact, three to four African elephants are illegally killed every hour of every day.
Nick Trent: The price of ivory has never been as it is now. Ounce for ounce, I believe it’s even higher than gold right now. And the more the price goes up, the more valuable an elephant tusk will be, and the more they’ll get poached.
Tom: The ivory trade isn’t just linked to the slaughter of elephants; it is also funding terrorism. Just last week, two bombings in Kenya killed nearly a dozen people. The group believed to be behind the attacks – al Shabaab – also killed 67 people in a popular mall last year.
Al-Shabaab gets nearly half of its funding from the sale of illegal ivory and other wildlife trafficking. That is according to an investigative report by the conservation group One Elephant Action League. The group also found the ivory trade funds other terrorist groups as well, including al-Qaeda.
Paul Mbugua is a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, which has the uphill battle of finding poachers in this vast wilderness.
Paul Mbugua: Everywhere where there is an elephant or a rhino, there is a poacher sitting somewhere, waiting to strike at the opportune moment.
Tom: I don’t think you can really anticipate just how vast this park is until you actually get here.
The park spans more than 5,000 square miles with 128 rangers on patrol at any given time. That is just one man responsible for almost 40 square miles. It is a dangerous job.
So, as you can see, these rangers are heavily armed. This is an FN automatic rifle. And they are not playing around. When they encounter poachers, they shoot to kill.
They are up against heavily armed, organized criminals. Our guide reminds us that every step we take could be a matter of life or death.
William: In case there is a shootout between us and the poachers, never run away. Stay calm. Stay where you are. We shall come for you later.
William: Because if you run away, where are you going to?
Tom: While trying to save these elephants throughout Africa, many rangers have paid the ultimate price – their lives.
William: The poachers have become more aggressive because they are able to confront the law enforcement officers and then get them in shootouts.
Tom: With demand higher than ever, putting a dent in the ivory trade seems to be an impossible task. And as long as people will pay big money for illegal ivory, more elephants will disappear.
Nick: There is a major need for panic at the moment, and there’s not that panic. It’s not long until there are no elephants.
Tom: Tomorrow, we will show you what the U.S. and international community are doing to put an end to this bloody trade.
Tom Hanson, Channel One News.