Recently, I watched a television program about the continuing difficulties of trying to keep elephants from the brink of extinction. The African elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. Experts and concerned scientists have determined that the animal is in danger of extinction in the wild by 2020. Like many other endangered species around the globe, elephants face the loss of habitat to development and agriculture. Sadly, habitat loss is not the only cause for this extinction. The elephants are dying twice as quickly as they were 10 years ago because of the ivory trade.
The organized large-scale poaching of the elephants is preventable, yet is not likely to stop. A recent report titled Elephants in the Dust-The African Elephant Crisis finds that global illegal ivory trading has more than doubled since 2007, and more than tripled since 1988. According to wildlife law enforcement officials, a large share of these illegal ivory shipments is destined for Asia. Local African governments have taken drastic measures to try to protect the elephants on refuges and sanctuaries. They have armed rangers who are authorized to use lethal force on poachers who resist arrest. The elephant killing continues, however, with an estimated 17,000 elephants being poached in 2011.
The elephant is not alone. Late in 2011, officials with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the West African black rhino extinct in the wild. The South African black rhino subspecies is classified as critically endangered. The southern white rhino is classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN, and the northern white rhino is nearly extinct, with only four animals remaining. Much like the elephant, the rhino has been poached extensively for a protrusion of value. The horn of the rhinoceros is actually a structure comprised of modified hairs. The rhino horns are valued in Asian culture for use in traditional medicines, and in Middle Eastern countries for ornamental dagger handles. A 2009 study by the IUCN showed that the trade in dagger handles has decreased sharply, but there has been a dramatic increase of trade to traditional medicine markets in China and Vietnam.
Dramatic measures are being implemented to attempt to save rhinos as well. Surviving animals are being drugged by wildlife officials who then remove the horn without harming the animal, hoping this will discourage poachers. In an even more extreme measure, officials at the Inverdoorn game reserve injected horns of living rhinos with poison, dyed the horns red, and injected barium into the horns which would show up on airport security X-ray machines. Around the world, the collection of horns continues, expanding into museums where at least 30 horns were removed from mounted rhino specimens.
We are not innocent here in the United States or in Wisconsin. We have shot many species to the brink of extinction, and some beyond all hope of return. The passenger pigeon is probably the best-known example of an extinct American species lost because we thought it could not be destroyed. These birds once darkened the Wisconsin skies with spectacular migrations. They were shot in countless numbers and used for everything from feathers to hog food. The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. A monument was erected to this bird in Babcock, Wisconsin. At the monument’s dedication ceremony, naturalist Aldo Leopold spoke of the significance of the recognition of our error. “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun,” Leopold said. “We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Will we, as humans, repeat our mistakes, hunting elephant, rhino, tiger and other magnificent large animals to extinction for lavish reasons and then mourning our loss? Right now, it appears so.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.