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  • Richard Conniff

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

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Posts Tagged ‘poaching’

Here’s Why It’s A Mistake to Discount China’s Ivory Crush

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2014

Ivory going into the crush Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Ivory going into the crusher Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Among many Western environmentalists, the response to China’s public destruction of confiscated ivory (first reported here and on TakePart this past Saturday) has ranged from skepticism to derision

Here’s Joe Walston, Asia Executive Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society on why that’s misguided:

China destroyed a portion of its massive stockpile of confiscated ivory on Monday – a first for the country.

The action has left the international conservation community struggling with its own conscience. Whether to praise a monumental shift in approach to conservation by the world’s biggest consumer of the world’s wildlife or condemn the event as posture, devoid of substance and commitment? Before judging, it’s worth examining the situation in a little more detail.

It was probably no coincidence that China crushed 6.1 tonnes when, just two months earlier, the US crushed a slightly smaller amount. In the US’s case it was almost its entire stockpile, while in China’s case it is a fraction: 17 tonnes were confiscated between 2010 and 2013 alone. Which raises the obvious question, why only the six tonnes? If China was serious about destroying stocks, then why not Read the rest of this entry »

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Elephant Poaching: The Disaster in Tanzania

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2013

Vulture droppings on a slaughtered elephant ((Photo: Udzungwa Elephant Project)

Vulture droppings on a slaughtered elephant ((Photo: Udzungwa Elephant Project)


Back in October, I reported on how Tanzania had reluctantly agreed to a proper scientific count of the remaining elephant population in the Selous ecosystem.  At the time, one of the conservationists involved in the survey emailed, “Lots of talk about how to manage media once the numbers come out since they’re expected to be so bad.”  Now the results are out, and they are dire.

Apparently, managing the media means keeping these results as quiet as possible.

But here’s a report from National Geographic:

In Tanzania, which until recently harbored the continent’s second largest number of savanna elephants (after Botswana), the results of an aerial census of the Selous ecosystem carried out this October have just been announced—at the 9th Scientific Conference of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), held December 4-6 in Arusha.

The Selous ecosystem (31,040 square miles) is Africa’s largest protected area and holds East Africa’s greatest elephant population. In the early 1970s, it was estimated to exceed 100,000 elephants, but by the end of the last great ivory poaching crisis in the late 1980s, the number had fallen to about 20,000.

Following the global ivory trade ban enacted in 1989, the population recovered to about 55,000 elephants by 2007—when the current wave of killing escalated. By 2009, Selous elephants were down to about 39,000.

The latest, recently announced population estimate is 13,084. This indicates an unprecedented decline of nearly 80 percent over the last six years.

We await with trepidation imminent results from East Africa’s second largest population, Ruaha-Rungwa (13,384 square miles), also in southern Tanzania, where large numbers of fresh carcasses are reported from Rungwa Game Reserve and parts of Ruaha National Park.

If, somewhere on your bucket list, you are hoping to make a safari in Tanzania, better do it quick.  Unless the government there takes dramatic action to stop the poachers, there won’t be anything left to see.

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Protecting Wildlife: Open Gates or Shoot-to-Kill?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2013

(Photo: Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

(Photo: Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

My latest for TakePart:

With the last of the wild elephants, rhinos, and tigers in immediate danger of being wiped off the face of the planet, it’s tempting to think that parks and other protected areas should adopt a shoot-to-kill policy toward poachers. This is, however, a dangerous idea—on a par with, say, using drone warfare to win peace  in Pakistan.

What I’ve instead seen in my travels suggests that you obtain better results, and they last longer, when you make neighboring communities partners in parks and other protected areas, so they have a sense of ownership. If local communities know that they will profit year after year from the wildlife and natural habitat around them, social pressure tends to shut down the criminals who kill for a quick buck.

Just last month, for instance, the journal Ecosphere published a study about the area around Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s Himalayan foothills. Beginning in 1996, the park created a 75,000 hectare buffer zone beyond its borders, with a bottom-up, non-exclusionary management plan devised by neighboring communities. Locals can no longer graze livestock in the buffer zone, but they get to decide how to divvy up firewood, fodder, and other resources there.

The new study used camera traps and satellite imagery to analyze the effects, and it turned out that the buffer zone is now doing better than the park itself. Its forest has suffered less damage, and it’s also home to more tigers. The explanation is that top-down exclusionary management policies within the formal park borders have turned the park into government land, and thus fair game. So the growing human population continues to venture there for whatever resources they can carry out. But local ownership makes the buffer zone “ours.” People call in wildlife authorities if they spot intruders and they complain loudly if they sense unfair or imprudent management practices. Overall, the tiger population in the Chitwan District has increased from 91 in 2009 to 125 today, even as traditionally managed parks in neighboring India continue to lose tigers to poaching.

That’s the logic of community management that I find so appealing, particularly as an alternative to the developing militarization of parks.  The tendency to militarization turned up just last week, for instance, Read the rest of this entry »

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The Heartbreaking Fate of Pangolins

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 10, 2013


Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

My latest for TakePart:

Pangolins are among the oddest and least-familiar animals on Earth. They’re mammals, but they’re armor-plated. Their chief defensive posture is to tuck their heads under their tails and roll up, like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. (It works: Even lions generally can’t get a grip.) They have tongues that are not only coated with a sticky, fly paper-like substance but can also extend up to 16 inches to probe into nests and snag ants for dinner. They’re shy, nocturnal and live either high up trees or deep underground.

Lisa Hywood has lately discovered just how charismatic these obscure creatures can be. At the Tikki Hywood Trust, her rescue center in Zimbabwe, one of her current guests, named Chaminuka, recognizes Hywood and makes a soft chuffing noise when she comes home. Then he stands up to hold her hand and greet her, she tells me. (Bit of a snob, though: He doesn’t deign to recognize her assistants.) Hywood finds working with pangolins even more emotionally powerful than working with elephants.

False hope for medicine

False hope for medicine

It’s also more urgent: Pangolins, she says, are “the new rhinos,” with illegal trade now raging across Asia and Africa. They are routinely served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Their scales are ground up, like rhino horn, into traditional medicines. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are made from keratin and about as medicinally useful as eating fingernail clippings. When poachers get caught with live pangolins, Hywood rehabilitates the animals for reintroduction to the wild.

But a lot of pangolins aren’t that lucky. By one estimate, poachers have killed and taken to market as many as 182,000 pangolins since 2011. And the trade seems only to be growing bigger. In northeastern India early this week, for instance, authorities Read the rest of this entry »

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Why A Legal Rhino Horn Trade Won’t Help

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 25, 2013

The killing of rhinos for their horns has become so widespread that some people are predicting rhinos will vanish from much of Africa in five years.  South Africa has already lost 700 rhinos this year, as of the end of September.  Game ranchers there, who have decades of experience breeding rhinos, have argued for a legalized trade in horn, as a way to end the illegal killing.

This analysis by the web site Annamiticus systematically kicks that idea in the ass.  It’s long and I don’t agree with all of it.  (For instance, it treats the idea that “commercial interests” are behind the idea as automatically a bad thing.  But commercial interests are also behind ecotourism and organic gardening.  Criminal interests, or poorly regulated commercial interests, on the other hand, are a serious issue.)

Still, it’s worth a look for anyone cares about the future of wildlife:

Do the arguments in favor of a legalized trade in rhino horn stand up to basic scrutiny?

Let’s take a look at the nine most common myths perpetuated by rhino horn trade advocates.

Myth #1. “A legal trade in rhino horn is the ‘rhino poaching’ solution.”

In 1996, a total of six rhinos were killed illegally in South Africa, down from ten the prior year. At the Tenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in 1997, South Africa sought to expand its Southern white rhino trade from “international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies” to include rhinoceros “parts and derivatives”.
However — even at a time when illegal killing numbers were declining (the total was four in 1997, then one in 1998 and 1999) respectively — the Parties determined that South Africa lacked “adequate control mechanisms” for a legal trade.

Today, evidence suggests that South Africa’s “control mechanisms” have declined even further. Since 2003, unscrupulous members of South Africa’s private rhino community have been implicated in rhino horn trafficking. Even more troubling, is that very few of these game farmers, professional hunters and safari operators have been convicted. Pseudo-hunts continued unabated with the apparent knowledge of provincial authorities, while hundreds of rhino horns and trophies were exported to Vietnam and Laos with the approval of South Africa’s CITES authorities. Following negative international publicity about the Vietnamese pseudo-hunts and Julian Rademeyer’s ground-breaking book Killing for Profit, South African trafficking networks apparently attempted to use connections in the Czech Republic.

Mary Rice, executive director of Environmental Investigation Agency’s London office, explains that “commercial interests” are behind South Africa’s pro-trade rhino policies.

Powerful commercial interests in South Africa are seeking to cash in on their stockpiled horn at the expense of the conservation and survival of South Africa’s rhinos. Legalizing rhino horn trade will reward the criminal kingpins behind the poaching, pushing rhinos inside and outside of South Africa Read the rest of this entry »

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Counting Tanzania’s Vanishing Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2013

A wildlife survey might not sound like the stuff of international intrigue, but what’s happening this week in Tanzania fits that description. Scientists, military, government officials, and international observers have descended on the east African nation in an effort that’s being described as a critical step in turning back the tide of elephant poaching.

At 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, three planes take off at the Selous Game Reserve and run precise transects, at 350 feet above the ground and 180 kilometers an hour, to count wildlife of all kinds.  The most closely watched figure will be how many elephants—and how many carcasses—are left on the ground in what has been one of the last great strongholds of the species.

“It’s the most important survey that needs to be done in Africa on elephants,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save The Elephants. He was instrumental in organizing the first pan-African elephant survey, which led to 1989’s worldwide ban on ivory trading, and he lent his expertise to the current effort when it was in the planning stages. “Selous has the second-largest elephant population in Africa, after Botswana—and by far the most threatened. We have data coming in that suggests there’s a real crisis there.”.

What’s dramatic for conservationists is the mere presence of scientists from the international community, monitoring the daily results as closely as if this were a national election.  Representatives from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and other outside groups helped organize the survey together with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI). Tanzania has never allowed that kind of transparency in its wildlife management until now.

“In the past, there was extraordinary reluctance to even admit that there was a poaching problem,” said Tim Davenport, director of the Tanzania program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is not involved in the survey. “Officials were cautious about having anyone do a true survey of elephants and carcasses,” largely because the government was hoping to win international permission to sell its stash Read the rest of this entry »

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Heading Back to Dzanga Bai

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2013

Back in May, I wrote about the terrible slaughter of elephants at Dzanga Bai, in the Central African Republic. Now Andrea Turkalo, the biologist who has spent much of her career getting to know the elephants there, is heading back.  She has just released this brief video on the terrible global war against elephants:

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The Perils of Pangolins

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2013

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

My latest, published today at Yale Environment 360.

Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.

If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals, commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.

Within the last year alone:

  • French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
  •  Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
  • Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
  • Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.

Annual seizures run to about Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 20, 2011

Here’s the story I reported from South Africa earlier this year.  It’s now out in the November Smithsonian:

Johannesburg’s international airport is an easy place to get lost in the crowd, and that’s what a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Xuan Hoang was hoping to do one day in March last year—just lie low till he could board his flight home.  The police dog sniffing down the line of passengers didn’t worry him; he’d checked his baggage through to Ho Chi Minh City.  But behind the scenes, police were also manning the x-ray scanners on flights to Vietnam, believed to be the epicenter of a new war on rhinos.  And when Hoang’s bag appeared on the screen, they saw the unmistakable shape of rhinoceros horns—six of them, weighing more than 35 pounds and worth up to $500,000.

Investigators suspected the contraband might be linked to a poaching incident a few days earlier on a game farm in Limpopo Province, on the country’s northern border.  “We have learned over time, as soon as a rhino goes down, in the next two or three days the horns will leave the country,” said police Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit, when I interviewed him recently in Pretoria.

The Limpopo rhinos had been killed in a “chemical poaching,” meaning that hunters, probably traveling by helicopter, shot them with a dart gun loaded with an overdose of veterinary tranquilizers.  As the price of rhino horn has soared, said Jooste, a short, thickly-built bull of a cop, so has the involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates.

“The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday.  All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.”

Police were not sure they would be able to send Hoang away for serious jail time, much less get to the professionals who had hired him. South African courts often require police not just to catch someone smuggling rhino horns, but actually connect the horns to a specific poaching incident.   “In the past,” said Jooste, “we needed to physically fit a horn on a skull to see if we had a match.  But that was not always possible, because we didn’t have the skull, or it was cut too cleanly.”

Taking the sample for DNA analysis

Police sent the horns confiscated at the airport to Cindy Harper, head of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Getting a match with DNA testing had never worked in the past. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rhino Madness in Missouri

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 22, 2011

Black rhinos (by Dana Allen for Wilderness Safaris)

It’s World Rhino Day, one of those meaningless designations that clutter our calendars.  But in this case, we’re in the middle of a crazy new war on rhinos.  My report from South Africa doesn’t come out in Smithsonian Magazine for another month or so.  So in the meantime, here’s a report from the current Atlantic about how a price of more than $100,000 for the horns of a single rhino has brought the madness even to such unlikely destinations as Moberly, Mississippi.  The writer is Malcolm Gay:

BY THE TIME I pulled in at the Super 8 in Moberly, Missouri, the parking lot was thick with muddy trucks. In fact, the young clerk told me, the motel was full—she’d just rented her last room to a lady with a sloth.

“It’s the auction,” the girl said, pointing me in the direction of the closest available bed—some 35 miles south. “We’ve got people in from all over.”

Four times a year, in nearby Macon, Lolli Bros. Livestock Market holds one of the country’s biggest exotic-animal auctions and taxidermy sales. When I arrived last spring, preteen girls roamed the halls with marmosets on their shoulders. Amish families looked sternly on as men in camouflage jackets vied for zebras and Bactrian camels. Nearby, a blond woman in a sweatshirt bottle-nursed a baby orangutan wearing a diaper, while a white buffalo calf wandered past a stuffed polar bear.

But what turned out to be one of the auction’s most valuable objects was also one of its smallest, residing behind a glass case in the taxidermy room: Read the rest of this entry »

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