Mammoth find in Nepal: BUT CAN “EXTINCT” SPECIES BE PROTECTED FROM POACHERS?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1996:
KENT, NAIROBI, HARARE––
Animal finds don’t come any bigger. British
explorer Col. John Blashford-Snell and
actress Rula Lenska, cofounder of the Born
Free Foundation, announced on September
16 in Kent, Great Britain, that DNA anlysis
of dung has confirmed the hint they dropped
at a July 15 press conference that remnant
woolly mammoths roam a densely wooded
600-square-mile section of Bardia National
Park, Nepal, deep in the Himalayas.
Blashford-Snell and Lenski found
the herd about three years after villagers
claimed that woolly mammoths had stampeded
their homes and crops.
“I didn’t believe such a thing existed
at first, but then someone showed me a
photo and I had to go and see,” BlashfordSnell
said. Taking Asian elephants to track
the purported mammoths, “The first year we
didn’t see anything,” Blashford-Snell continued.
“The second year we found 22-inchlong
footprints, and then finally we saw one
of these huge creatures,” described in the
July tentative announcement as “a race of
giant elephants with pronounced domes on
At that time, University College of
London paleontologist Adrian Lister said
only that DNA sampling from dung should
clarify whether the animals were related to
“Originally I thought they were
mutants injured by bullets,” Blashford-Snell added, “but it
seems that they have the same bone structure as mammoths
from the same area which existed millions of years ago.”
A book by Blashford-Snell and Lenska about their
expeditions, Mammoth Hunt, was published on September 19.
The discovery of live mammoths upstaged the August
19 departure of Japanese researchers Kazufumi Goto and Shoji
Okutsu for Yakutsk, Siberia, where they hope to recover
frozen sperm from the bodies of woolly mammoths preserved
in ice, recover the DNA, and create half-mammoth hybrids
with Asian elephants, believed to be the woolly mammoths’
closest living relatives.
Now that actual mammoths have been found, the
Goto/Okutsu project may shift toward diversifying their genetic
base: if sperm could be taken from long-dead mammoths, and
eggs could be drawn from living mammoths, embryo transplants
to Asian elephant hosts could produce new mammoth
lines––and young woolly mammoths might soon be in zoos.
Lenska and Howlett’s Zoo Park owner John Aspinall
plan to return to Nepal next year to develop a plan to protect the
mammoths. Blashford-Snell believes there are fewer than 100
of them, and perhaps only four or five.
Said Lenska, “There is still a lot of research to be
done on these elephants, and it is also important to set up some
sort of conservation process. A lot of animals are in grave danger
of extinction in Nepal,” home of dozens of endangered
species, “and we have to do something to save them.”
The animals most threatened by poaching, globally,
are rhinos––and Nepalese rhino protection success may bode
well for the woolly mammoths. Since 1987, the one-horned
rhinoceros population of Chitwan National Park has grown
from 370 to more than 500. The only larger herd roams
Kazirange National Park in northeastern Assam, India, where
there were 1,500 before the July monsoons. But the monsoons
showed just how vulnerable a small, isolated population of animals
can become. The flooding itself wasn’t a threat. Though
Kazirange and two other Assamese national parks were inundated,
neither rhinos nor elephants are known to have drowned,
except in adjacent West Bengal, where as heavy rains continued
into September, five elephants saved a calf from the raging
Teesta River at cost of their own lives.
However, rising water drove park rangers from their
posts, possibly opening the deluged regions to poachers with
boats or float planes. The Assamese government temporarily
barred carrying firearms, spears, and archery equipment––but
had no way to enforce the edict.
While Asian elephants have been bred in captivity for
thousands of years, habitat protection may be the only means
of insuring the survival of one-horned rhinos. Captive breeding,
encouraged by Prince Gyanendra of Nepal through gifts of
rhinos to zoos, has largely failed––as was underscored by the
September 5 death of one gift rhino, at age 9, a fifth of his life
expectancy, at the San Francisco Zoo. The rhino bull collapsed
just before University of California at Davis and
Northwestern University veterinarians were to do exploratory
surgery on him, seeking the cause of a prolonged malaise, and
collecting semen for use in artificially inseminating females
kept at other institutions.
The mammoths turned up amid intensified hunting
and poaching pressure that has some authorities wondering if
any wild elephants can be protected for long. Neither Asian nor
African elephants are at any risk of extinction in captivity.
African elephants are also still plentiful in the wild, for the
time being: though there were 1.2 million circa 1980, and
620,000 as recently as 1990, about 600,000 remain, according
to the World Wildlife Fund. Botswana alone claims to have
79,000 elephants; Zimbabwe claims 70,000.
Both figures are believed by independent researchers
to be greatly inflated. However, citing the high numbers,
which would be roughly double the estimated carrying capacity
of the habitat, Botswana president Ketumile Masire announced
on July 23 that Botswana might disregard the 1989 global ban
on ivory trafficking imposed by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species, if it isn’t amended
to permit trade in ivory obtained from various forms of legal
killing. On August 14, Zimbabwe asked CITES to allow it an
exemption from the ban, to facilitate the sale of 33 tons of
legally obtained ivory so that the profits could be used to support
elephant conservation––largely by financially assisting
communities that occupy elephant habitat.
A week later, the Southern African Development
Community nations agreed in Maseru, Lesotho, to present a
united front on the elephant ivory issue at the June 1997 CITES
meeting, coming up in Harare, Zimbabwe. The SADC nations
euphemistically renamed the Southern African Center for Ivory
Marketing that they formed in 1994: it is now the Southern
African Convention for Wildlife Management.
Anticipating renewed opportunity to pass off poached
ivory as having been legally taken, though use of bribery and
forged documents such as was common a decade ago, poaching
gangs have escalated their killing.
On August 15, the remains of a poached 31-year-old
bull elephant named Jake were discovered in Tanzania, just
over the border from Amboseli National Park in Kenya, as
David Western, director of Kenya Wildlife Services, held ceremonies
to mark the department’s 50th anniversary. Another
Amboseli elephant, Beach Ball, was poached near the park
headquarters two days earlier. Eight bull elephants were
poached in or around Amboseli during the preceding six weeks.
Reported Sam Kiley of The London Times f r o m
Nairobi, “Three females, Qarla, Genette, and Zsazsa, are
also assumed to have been killed, as their calves are being fostered
by other females. The deaths of matriarchs are particularly
worrying, researchers say, because they teach young animals
how to find water and food.” The loss of elder elephants
also may contribute to elephant misbehavior. Young bull elephants
have killed 19 white rhinos since March in the
Pilanesburg game reserve of South Africa, some in fighting,
others in failed mating attempts. None of this interaction was
previously known to happen.
The Amboseli poaching was just a start. On
September 4, 200 elephants were found dead, their tusks cut
off, in a salt marsh 500 miles north of Brazzaville, The Congo.
Many victims were pregnant females and infants. The marsh
had just been added to Odzala National Park.
Organized poaching is less a problem in Asia, where
wild elephants are fewer and therefore easier to protect, but the
few elephants who remain are menaced by human encroachment
on their habitat. One example was evident over the summer
at Handapanagala, Sri Lanka, where a decade ago the
government built a dam to provide a water supply and started a
sugar plantation to create jobs. A 135-mile electric fence supposed
to keep elephants out instead cut off a migration route,
trapping about 130 elephants inside. The plantation affords
them only about a third of the habitat they need. Elephant
stampedes have killed about 70 farmworkers and family members
during the past two years alone. In August, Sri Lankan
authorities tried to move the elephants out of Handapanagala.
How well it worked will take time to know.
On September 11, the U.S. gave poachers another
seeming green light, removing Taiwan from a list of nations
believed to be heavily involved in the elephant ivory, rhino
horn, and tiger bone traffic. But that signal may be misread.
Taiwan earned the end to censure, three years after both
Taiwan and China, still on the list, were cited, two years after
Clinton invoked trade sanctions against Taiwan, and one year
after the formal sanctions were lifted. Taiwan has not only
passed and thus far enforced relatively stringent conservation
laws, but has also funded formation of a small anti-poaching
air force. The Wilderness Conservancy and Ark Trust, with
Taiwanese funding, have purchased and outfitted a pair of
Champion Super Scout spotter planes, made available on loan
to the Endangered Species Protection Unit of the South African
Police. These aircraft will not be armed, but a Zenair CH-701
acquired by Friends of Animals with Taiwanese funding features
an armored cockpit and the ability to mount an automatic
rifle that will fire below the propeller. The armament is considered
necessary to deter poachers where the CH-701 will fly, in
Senegal and Ghana. At least 20 Senegalese and Ghanian park
wardens have been murdered during the past few years.
“Firearms will be fired only by a duly authorized
ranger with national law enforcement authority,” stipulates Bill
Clark of FoA, who supervised the arrangements.
The Wilderness Conservancy/Ark Trust arrangements
were handled by WildCon president Robert Cleaves.
Simultaneously, Cleaves tried to raise funds from other sources
to buy and relocate families of elephants otherwise slated for
culling in Kruger National Park, South Africa. With 8,000 elephants
in an area the size of New Jersey, Kruger is the only
part of Africa generally agreed to have surplus elephants.
Cleaves in late winter won a moratorium on lethal culling from
the South African National Parks Board, at least through 1996,
but correspondence leaked to ANIMAL PEOPLE by other
sources indicates that at $2,850 per elephant to be saved, as of
late spring all major U.S. animal protection organizations combined
were only willing to save four.
The letters also indicate Cleaves sought to keep the
matter private, to avoid embarrassing the potential funders.
Perhaps his diplomacy succeeded; on September 4, South
African National Parks Board chief Robbie Robinson proposed
a policy amendment to make relocation rather than killing the
method of choice for dealing with surplus elephants. Robinson
said the NPB had moved 150 elephants and killed 150 in 1995,
but so far in 1996 had killed none, while moving 100.
Zimbabwe was embarrassed meanwhile by the exposure
of massive corruption within its Communal Areas
Management Plan for Indigenous Resources, CAMPFIRE for
short. Underwritten by $5 million a year from the U.S. Agency
for International Development, CAMPFIRE promotes “sustainable
use,” earning about $600,000 a year as a native-run
safari concession. The scandal broke in July when the Harare
Sunday Mail reported that “The council has suspended two
senior officials, while the chief executive officer is under
police investigation. Most of the case involved flouting of tender
procedures, inflating invoices, using council funds for personal
business, and allegedly receiving kickbacks for granting
illegal hunting rights.”
Not everyone in Zimbabwe, however, is into killing
elephants. The 7,000-acre Imere Game Park has enlisted elephants
in their own defense, as mounts for private rangers. “A
chap on an elephant sees a lot further in the bush,” trainer Peter
Musaveya, 22, told Suzanne Daley of The New York Times,
“and it makes quite an impression on the poachers.”
Conventional wisdom says only Asian elephants can
be taught to work, but Musaveya also has the Imere elephants
pulling ploughs––expressing his hope, perhaps, that the
weapons used against elephants now may some day be beaten
into something less lethal.