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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Agony and Ivory

Air Date: Week of

Rising prosperity in China is driving a new wave of demand for ivory products. African Elephants are being killed by the thousands for their precious tusks. Alex Shoumatoff investigated this illegal trade and documented his findings in his feature story, ‘Agony and Ivory,’ published in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. He reveals some of his alarming findings to host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The numbers are tough to come by, but it’s estimated that in Africa a hundred elephants a day – more than 36 thousand a year – are killed by poachers for the animals’ valuable tusks. Alex Shoumatoff investigated the illegal trafficking in elephant tusks for his article “Agony and Ivory.” It appears in the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Alex, welcome to Living on Earth.

SHOUMATOFF: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: You traveled the world tracking down the elephant tusk trade. I’ve gotta tell you, this is a very sad story!

SHOUMATOFF: Yes it is, and it’s one that needs to be out there. And I’ve known about it for a couple of years, and this is really time to get the word out because it’s escalating. I went to nine countries on three continents over six weeks, you know, trying to trace the chain from the guy that kills the elephant to the guy that buys it in China. The really overwhelming trade now is in China.

GELLERMAN: Why the Chinese?

Carved ivory statue in Guangzhou, China. (Wikipedia Commons)

SHOUMATOFF: Because of this rise of the suddenly wealthy, the bafahu, the middle class in China who are buying…. you know, it’s only the elderly ones – the younger people don’t have this great, you know, desire to buy ivory. But it’s the older ones who have finally made it to a point where now they can buy some ivory.

GELLERMAN: So it’s a symbol of status?

SHOUMATOFF: Power, yeah, of having made it, having arrived, that you can make discretionary purchases. But traditionally, it’s a symbol of being of higher station. In Lusaka, the market there, people will whisper shung-ze, I think they’re called, which means elephant’s teeth in Mandarin, meaning they have some for you if you are interested.

GELLERMAN: You write in your article that some of the areas, the national parks where these African elephants can be found are vast – one’s the size of Connecticut – and has, what, 60 monitors for the elephants?

SHOUMATOFF: That’s the one in Zimbabwe. So, yeah, they hardly have enough to… that one according to the official government figures has 50 thousand elephants, but we drove around it all day covering about 300 miles, we went to all the pans or waterholes and no elephants at all. And we only saw three at dusk. What we did see was that the roads were littered with the carcasses, the bleached bones of poached elephants, and we did come across one carcass, actual carcass, so there is just massive poaching going on in there.

(Photo: Steve Evans)

GELLERMAN: What’s the worst place right now for the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks?

SHOUMATOFF: That is probably Gabon, which has the largest remaining population of forest elephant in their forests, about 60 thousand, and they’re being killed at the rate of thousands per year, several thousand. And Chad is down to a few hundred, Sierra Leone is down to single digits. The Central African Republic went from, I don’t know, 50 thousand to three thousand in the last 20 years. So the only large population left is in Gabon. So Gabon, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe I would say are the big ones.

GELLERMAN: Who is doing the actual poaching? Who is doing the killing?

SHOUMATOFF: Where? In Zimbabwe?


SHOUMATOFF: Well, it’s the actual…even the guards are allowed to kill wild game on Thursdays, once a week, and that’s what they live on because the government doesn’t give them any rations. And then the military, you know, they have quotas and stations all over the country. Then there are hunting lodges…

GELLERMAN: I saw one on YouTube, there’s this guy Buck McNealy, you write about him in your article – I looked up the YouTube. I want you listen to this:

[SOUNDS OF SHOTS BEING FIRED; MCNEALY (from YouTube clip): Big game hunting is one of the most exciting things there is in the world. You get your grizzly bears, you get your lions, you get your leopards, you get your buffalos, but I’m here to tell you baby, ain’t nothing like the elephant!]

SHOUMATOFF: God. He must think that his penis grows an inch for every one of the big five that he bags! You know, the matriarchs and the big bulls with the biggest tusks are being selectively shot, targeted by the poachers and that is a genetic and a social disaster unless it is stopped.

GELLERMAN: Well there is an international campaign, a video campaign, called “Shot Blocker.” I want you to listen to this; this one stars an NBA star, Yao Ming:

[YouTube clip: SOUNDS]

GELLERMAN: It’s got him leaping up and blocking a bullet from a high caliber rifle aimed at an elephant.

SHOUMATOFF: An amazing clip there, you know, where he leaps up and stops this flying bullet that’s headed in the direction of the elephant.


GELLERMAN: What is he saying there?

SHOUMATOFF: Apparently he’s saying “Never buy illegal wildlife products. When the buying stops, the killing can too.”

GELLERMAN: So the idea is really to put the kibosh on the demand, people buying ivory from elephants.


GELLERMAN: Will that stop the killing?

SHOUMATOFF: No. You need to stop it at every step of the process. You know the people there, there’s so much poverty in the places where the elephants are that the people will continue to kill elephants even if they only get 50 cents a pound. You know, they’ll still do it, unless they’re provided with some other livelihood. And so the economic development is now the thrust of a lot of the national conservation movement.

GELLERMAN: Alex Shoumatoff’s article “Agony and Ivory: Investigating the killing of elephants for their tusks” appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine.



Read Alex Shoumatoff’s article ‘Agony and Ivory’ in Vanity Fair

Visit Shoumatoff’s blog

Kenya set to burn huge stash of ivory in retaliation to illegal ivory trade.


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