The first elephant I saw in Africa was dead. He had probably been wounded by poachers outside the park, then come into the park to die. His giant carcass was covered by vultures, having their fill.
It's estimated an elephant is killed in Tanzania every 15 minutes for its ivory. The rampant poaching is hard to stop because high government officials profit from the trade. Across Africa, as many as 35,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year – roughly 10 per cent of the continent's entire elephant population. At this rate, they'll soon be gone. One of the most magnificent species on the planet is being wiped out before our eyes.
Elephants aren't the only species at risk in Africa. Lions no longer exist outside the game parks and rhinos have been reduced to a handful. These animals have handily survived hundreds of thousands of years of climate change. What they may not survive is us.
Despite the poaching, Tanzania and Kenya are still great places to get your fill of elephants. We saw large herds making their way noiselessly across the grasslands, lolling in dust baths, nuzzling their young. These majestic creatures are remarkable – and a lot like us. Their emotional lives are rich. They rejoice and suffer much as we do. They try to help their wounded, and they mourn their dead. Elephants have been known to chew the grass and feed it to a toothless old matriarch to try to keep her going. They are so traumatized by violent death that when populations have needed culling, conservationists have killed family groups, not individuals.
There's no culling needed now. The elephants are dying the cruellest of deaths. Because the penalty for carrying illegal firearms is high, the poachers don't always use guns. They snare their prey, use poisoned spears or lure the animals with poisoned watermelons. They dig trenches and fill them with poisoned spikes, then stampede the elephants across the field into the trench. Because elephant tusks extend deep into the skull, the faces are hacked off with an axe so that every last kilo of ivory can be harvested.
One idyllic day in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, we watched nine bull elephants relaxing at a river in a valley below us. They were jousting with their tusks and generally behaving like a convivial elephant fraternity. "That's half a million dollars' worth of ivory," said our guide, Tim Corfield, who is both passionate and pessimistic about the poaching crisis. We were near the dangerous end of the park, where a paved highway provides easy access for tourists, and fast getaways for poachers.
Kenya and Tanzania are making efforts to battle poaching with tough laws and stepped-up policing. Wildlife tourism is economically vital, and their governments know that if the animals are gone, the tourists won't come. But in many other places, it's another story. In the Congo and Uganda, elephants are hunted with helicopters and machine guns supplied by the U.S. to arm its allies. The lucrative ivory trade is a handy source of extra income and an important source of funding for terrorist groups like the Lord's Resistance Army and various al-Qaeda affiliates.
Most of the ivory winds up in China, where exploding prosperity has fuelled an insatiable demand. Tusks are turned into amulets, trinkets, religious objects and status symbols. Many Buddhists and Catholics in Asia believe that ivory honours God. Many Chinese believe it comes from elephants that died of natural causes. Others think that elephants can regrow their tusks every year. Many don't know that harvesting the ivory kills the elephants, and many don't care.
It's a cliché to say that Africa changes you. But it's true. After we came home, I wondered if anything could be done to stop, or at least slow, the extinction of the elephants, a fate that seems both inconceivable and likely.
There is a great amount of diplomatic effort to constrain the demand side, which has produced a lot of talk and not much else. Then I met Greg Gubitz, who started a charitable foundation called Big Life Canada in 2012. It's a sister to the U.S. foundation of the same name. Both are doing boots-on-the-ground work to curb the ivory trade in Kenya and Tanzania.
Big Life employs rangers in 31 remote outposts to track and arrest poachers. It works closely with local communities to make sure they have a stake in conservation, too. This part is essential. Conservation efforts can only succeed if the wildlife, and the tourism that comes with it, are generating revenue and employment for them.
"Our biggest support is from communities that tell us where the poachers are," Mr. Gubitz says. "They don't want the animals killed either." Big Life also helps to manage human-wildlife conflict – an inevitable problem in areas where farmers and elephants collide.
The work is urgent. One of Big Life's founders is Nick Brandt, an extraordinary wildlife photographer who published a stunning book on Kenyan elephants. Most of its subjects are now dead.
"Some argue that it's a lost cause, because the real solution is curbing the demand," says Mr. Gubitz, who's taking time off from a successful business career to devote himself to Big Life. "But changing the Chinese culture is a long, long process. My approach is that we have to do both at the same time."
It will be tough to change the odds against the elephants. But as Mr. Gubitz says, "It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done."