Guest Column: Saving Cameroon’s elephants

LA Times

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, March 15:

Check off another majestic animal species your kids will probably never get to see: The forest elephant of Cameroon. Smaller than savanna elephants and with straighter tusks, the intelligent behemoths are being cut down by poachers at a horrifying pace.

This week, the World Wildlife Fund announced the discovery of 28 forest elephants killed in recent weeks in two national parks in Cameroon. That may not sound like many, but with an estimated population of about 2,000 forest elephants, it’s quite a lot; at the present rate of poaching, in fact, the animal will be extinct within a decade.

Poaching is a bedeviling topic because of its apparent conflicts between human and animal rights. Westerners seem more eager to intervene when endangered animals such as elephants or gorillas are threatened in Africa than when genocidal wars or militia campaigns kill, injure and enslave thousands of Africans yearly. Then there’s the fact that the desperately poor people in many African countries need the money from ivory sales and sometimes rely on “bush meat” from endangered animals to survive. In parts of Asia, ivory is considered precious beyond jewels, valued not only for its beauty when carved, but as a cure for many ailments, including cancer. Are their rights less important?

In this case, actually, yes. The WWF says most of the Cameroonian elephant poaching is being done by militia groups from neighboring Chad and Sudan, who descend on herds and simply open fire with AK-47s. The proceeds from ivory sales, which can be vast — ivory sells for roughly $1,300 a pound in China — are used to fund their illegal wars. Moreover, poaching an animal to extinction is sustainable for neither man nor beast, since it guarantees that the market will soon vanish. The only way to stem this trade is to halt ivory sales worldwide.

Some progress has been made in that direction. Many thought the problem had been solved in 1989 when the worldwide Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned the cross-border ivory trade. But legal operations in Thailand and China continued. More headway was made at last week’s CITES conference in Bangkok, where Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra vowed to end all legal loopholes allowing ivory trading. But China still needs prodding. Though the government officially opposes ivory sales, a combination of corruption and incompetence has allowed a quasi-legal trade to survive, making China the world’s biggest threat to the elephant population.

Enough. More pressure must be brought to bear on China to crack down on its ivory market. And the government of Cameroon, more stable and prosperous than its neighbors, must send more forces to protect its park elephants. The loss of these magnificent animals would make the world a poorer place.