Rachel Love Nuwer is the author of Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking.
Elephants are the draw for many visitors to Africa, and I was no exception. In 2016, I set off for Liwonde National Park in Malawi, a protected area I had only just heard of in a country I knew very little about.
The journey required spending about a day on planes, plus a three-hour car ride down a single-lane highway crowded with bicycles and pedestrians. I gazed at miles and miles of naked, rolling hills that had long since been stripped bare of trees to make charcoal. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and natural resources – not just trees, but wildlife, too – have fallen by the wayside as a result.
But some pockets of the country’s former glory remain, and they are crucial for bringing much-needed tourist dollars to local communities and preserving vital ecosystem services. Liwonde National Park, one such place, is home to Malawi’s largest population of elephants. Some 450 elephants roam that wilderness about the size of Chicago, and 350 more were translocated to other parks in Malawi as kindling for reigniting populations.
I had come all this way, not in the hopes of seeing frolicking baby elephants with gangly, swinging trunks playing beneath their mothers’, grandmothers’ and aunts’ legs, nor to hear the trumpeting and otherworldly groans of towering bulls communicating in a complex language developed over five million years. Instead, I had come here to see a dead elephant.
Across Africa, elephants are being felled by bullets and poison so that their tusks can be torn from their faces and trafficked to the East, where demand for ivory has ignited. From 2007 to 2014 alone, savanna elephant populations plummeted by 30 per cent, largely due to poaching. Liwonde was not spared. In the two years prior to my visit, poachers killed 50 of the park’s elephants. The deaths likely would have continued unabated until the last animal had been hunted down, were it not for the efforts of African Parks, a non-profit organization that now manages Liwonde and has turned things around.
As a journalist covering conservation, I had reported dozens of stories citing such grim statistics. Yet I had never seen first-hand the toll that human greed is taking on Africa’s living treasures. When I decided to write a book that allowed me to dig far deeper into the illegal trade in ivory and other wildlife products than news stories could ever allow, I realized that I could no longer put off this dreaded experience. I needed to see a poached elephant with my own eyes, so I could better understand what is at stake and convey that urgency to my readers.
The African Parks team has greatly lessened poaching in Liwonde, but those dedicated men and women have not yet managed to stop it entirely. Nervous and unsure of what to expect, I boarded a helicopter and set out in search of an elephant carcass that had yet to be broken down by Africa’s many four- and six-legged scavengers.
We circled over a dry patch of burnt-orange forest until the pilot pointed at a crumpled shape below that looked like a deflated, grey balloon. The elephant.
Touching down nearby, I could smell the animal before I saw it. It seemed to have been running when it died, its legs outstretched as though in a gallop. Its skin was dry and shrivelled from weeks beneath the sun, and its ribs were scattered about like fallen branches. The face was the worst part, though: It was simply gone. Like many poachers, whoever killed this animal, in their haste, had simply chopped through the skull to extract the deeply embedded tusks. Flies buzzed as I gazed down at the unseeing face of this once-magnificent animal. I tried to take in the gravity of its needless death.
If the people who eventually purchase bangles, pendants or tacky carvings made of ivory could stand in my place now, I wondered, would they feel any differently?
Humans have been killing elephants for their tusks for millennia, and in some ways I can understand the draw. Carved, polished ivory possesses an almost luminous glow, and unlike metal or stone, it has a pleasant, warm feel to it. Intriguingly, when a light is shone directly behind the creamy white material, it turns orange-red, as though carrying a secret fire within. It is durable and long-lasting, yet can be easily carved into the most delicate and exquisitely detailed ornaments by a skilled hand.
For some, ivory’s beauty and allure will always outweigh the lives of the animals to whom it rightfully belongs. Trade of ivory from elephants that die of natural causes or were killed in legal culls has thus far proven impossible to regulate without providing a smokescreen for horrific illegal trade. So long as there is a market for ivory, poachers – who are often hopelessly poor men who see no other means to better their lives – will never stop killing elephants.
This is why, in 1989, the world voted to give elephants the highest level of protection and, in doing so, banned international trade of ivory. This is also why many countries, including the United States, China, France, Britain, Kenya and more, have enacted or are in the process of enacting domestic ivory trade bans. While Canada is not a primary destination for trafficked ivory, it remains a holdout in allowing ivory to be traded within its borders.
I am not against sustainable trade of wildlife products. But this is not possible where elephants are concerned. Kenyan conservationists say it best: Ivory belongs to elephants, not to us.