I felt a sickening sadness as a breeze wafted the pungent decay of two rotting elephant corpses in my direction. In this beautiful Kenyan savannah there had been a terrible act of violence and somewhere nearby I knew we were going to witness the evidence. The wind played with us for a while, sending us in circles, but inevitably, behind acacia the terrible scene revealed the source of this stench. As a professional photographer I saw the horizon, the landscape, the dark blood, the corpses lined up; but I was haunted by emptiness, a feeling of loss.
Elephants poached in Tsavo, Kenya 1988 © Dave Currey/EIA
The killing of wild elephants for their tusks is above all, to me, an act of violence. It betrays the landscape in which they live, the family of which they were a part and punctures my hope for the future. Their deaths unravel a chain of destruction from the savannahs and forests of Africa and Asia to the corruption and lies by governments, traders and ivory trade apologists. Its violence permeates every part of the chain and destroys human lives in its wake.
This violence is playing out across Africa as an elephant is poached every twenty minutes.
Mozambique has lost about half its elephants in just five years but it has also lost about 500 ivory and rhino horn poachers, gunned down mainly in South Africa’s Kruger Park. These men, mainly poor, have left behind families now destined to survive without their bread-winner. Whatever anyone’s thoughts are about poachers, the human cost across Africa contributes to appalling poverty.
Sixty two brave rangers and wardens are reported to have been murdered protecting wildlife last year, and three rangers and an army officer were killed by elephant poachers in the Congo just last week. The ivory traders provide weapons to poachers and money to militias.
A ranger inspects a bullet hole in a newly killed elephant, 2011 © Dave Currey/EIA
There has been much publicity in the last couple of years linking ivory to funding terrorists as if this is a new phenomenon. I realise many governmental debates now require “terror” as a narrative and maybe they will now take notice, but this is nothing new. For decades ivory has been documented as providing funds for rebels in Angola, Mozambique, Sudan, Somalia and armies in South Africa and Zimbabwe; armies that killed thousands of innocent people part funded by the violence of the ivory trade.
I was intimately involved in the proposal by Tanzania for an ivory ban in 1989. EIA provided solid evidence to the government of their elephant ivory enriching people in Europe, the USA, Japan, the Middle East, Singapore, China and Hong Kong. Tanzanian investigators brought evidence from all parts of the country of the corruption and breakdown of governance in huge areas where ivory had become the illegal currency.
In parts of the country the power gained from the wealth of ivory enabled criminals to control communities. For instance, if a tractor was provided by a donor, it was commandeered by the ivory empowered criminals and sold to the highest bidder. The Tanzanian government understood this and it was one of the main reasons they proposed the international ivory ban.
Two thirds of Tanzania's elephants have been wiped out in the last 5 years © Dave Currey
Attempts to close down poaching networks can also cause pain and violence setting government forces against its own people. In October 2013 Tanzania sent over 2,000 security personnel, anti-poaching units and police to parts of the country to break down poaching networks. By November 2013 President Kikwete was forced to close down the operation because of accusations of brutality including murders, rape, torture and extortion, including the killing of thousands of livestock - the livelihood of entire communities.
I have met Samburu warriors in Kenya who spoke warmly of the cultural significance of elephants in their community. Yet they said they had suffered beatings and bullying by police when a wounded elephant, shot far away, had walked for days and died on their land.
In the 1980s criminals exploited every supposed regulation, quota or attempted control thrown at them by ivory trade apologists. These criminals also became increasingly empowered by the wealth dead elephants provided them, gaining influence within the very international convention set up to protect wildlife from over exploitation - CITES.
Thirty years and millions of dollars later, careers have been built on trying to restart the legal ivory trade, publishing reports and analyses on how to prevent “illegal” ivory being laundered into “legal” ivory markets through enforcement and registration of ivory. All this prompted the release of some “legal” ivory into the markets of China and Japan in 2008 with the idiotic mantra that prices would plummet. The Chinese authorities immediately and deliberately released this ivory in small tranches at inflated prices. The price of ivory skyrocketed, elephant poaching regained its hold, and the repeated failure of these policies accelerated the violence and corruption; the killing of rangers, poachers and elephants.
We must hold all those people involved in the decision to allow the 2008 sale of ivory to China and Japan responsible for this violence: The countries supporting the CITES decision, the failed "experts" that recommended the sale and WWF and TRAFFIC for endorsing this crazy decision undermining the rest of the wildlife NGO community.
So who could possibly want the ivory trade to continue? Look out for Ivory Trade: Part 2 in a few days.