Jared Leto’s World Wildlife appeal

I got an email from actor Jared Leto.  Not a personal email, although he used my name.  Rather, he is an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund, and they are currently running a fundraising campaign to save Asian elephants in Myanmar.

Last week I posted about the current crisis in Myanmar, and how poachers are now selling elephant skin as “medicine”, even though there is no real scientific evidence that elephant skin has any benefit for human health.

Jared writes:

Elephant poaching rates since January have already surpassed the annual average for Myanmar—this is truly a crisis. Most of the poaching is happening in two areas: Bago Yoma and Ayeyarwady Delta, where poachers can gain easy access. At this rate, wild Asian elephants could vanish from these areas in just one or two years…

WWF has an emergency action plan to stop the poaching. With your support, WWF will train, equip and deploy 10 anti-poaching teams to the most vulnerable areas, and implement a thorough plan to stop the slaughter.

So far, the campaign has raised $80,000.  The goal is $230,000, so if you’re looking for a good cause for donatations, please consider this!

Myanmar elephant deaths rise

From The Guardian:

“Reported cases of killed elephants in Myanmar have increased dramatically since 2010, with a total of 112 wild elephant deaths, most of them in the past few years. In 2015 alone, 36 wild elephants were killed, according to official figures from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The figures for 2016 are feared to be even worse.”

Myanmar, a poor country with plenty of government crises, has not devoted time and money to invest consistently in conservation.  Although they did stop logging operations in 2014, they have been unsuccessful in protecting wildlife such as elephants from poachers.

With China banning the ivory trade, Myanmar has become a popular spot for Chinese to go to buy ivory and other elephant products such as the teeth, skin, and the penis.  Most of these parts are used for “medicinal” purposes, although there is no solid scientific evidence rhino, elephant, or tiger parts really help treat illnesses.  Any relief the patient feels after ingesting or rubbing such ointments onto the skin is likely only an expensive placebo effect that harms the environment.

Myanmar unfortunately has become a country where African elephant parts go to the market too.  Groups such as TRAFFIC are trying to strengthen Myanmar border patrols to stop illegal wildlife trading.


Photo: taken at Elephant Nature Park






Elephant “revenge” on hunter

Big game safari hunter Theunis Botha, age 51, died this past week after being crushed by a female elephant.  From NPR:

Botha ran Theunis Botha Game Hounds Safaris specializing in leopard and lion safaris in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. He claims to have pioneered a European-style of hunting in the region using hounds to help flush out the prey. Botha would often travel to the United States to find wealthy customers to take part in the trips, according to the Telegraph.

He was with a hunting party and they came across a breeding herd of elephants – three elephants charged towards him, and a fourth came from the side and took him by surprise, lifting him with her trunk.  A fellow hunter shot the elephant and she too died, crushing Mr. Botha.

Sadly, Mr. Botha leaves behind a grieving family.  Yet, hunting big game is very dangerous and there is always high risk.  The fact that this was a breeding herd made the situation incredibly precarious for the humans.   Elephants, like most mammals, are prepared to fight to the death to protect their most vulnerable family members.

Supporters of big game hunts say the money goes into conservation, and also keeps populations in check.  But, the results show problems with this optimistic theory.  National Geographic looked at six countries that allow big game hunting (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania) and wrote the following:

But a closer look at trophy hunting in Africa shows that the industry employs few people and that the money from hunt fees that trickles down to needy villagers is minimal. Government corruption can be a factor. In Zimbabwe, for instance, individuals associated with President Robert Mugabe have seized lands in lucrative hunting areas. Trophy hunting isn’t stopping poaching, especially in countries that have a poor record of protecting their wildlife…

With more than one-sixth of the land in those six countries set aside for trophy hunting, and the fact that land-hungry politicians are seizing more and more land for themselves, impoverished rural communities often resort to poaching and the illegal wildlife trade to sustain themselves.



Rhino horn trade

Bad news from The Economist regarding rhino horns:

On March 30th South Africa’s constitutional court overturned the ban on domestic trade. Now, if they have the right permit, people can trade rhino horn, but not export it. TRAFFIC’s Mr Milliken worries that this will lead to the worst of all worlds. Allowing some legal trade while the authorities are not properly enforcing the ban on illegal trade will muddy already murky waters. Once out of the country, legal and illegal horn will be all but indistinguishable. So users in Vietnam will have cheaper supplies; the illegal dealers still in control of the export trade will pocket the profits; and rhinos will keep falling to the poachers’ bullets.

Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, rhino horn is still popular in Southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam) as a medicinal substance.  It is ground up and used to “cure” everything from the common cold to infertility to cancer.


(Photo taken at my zoo)

Synthetic ivory

Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath is working on creating a synthetic ivory.  Similar to mother-of-pearl, the goal would be to look, feel, and act like the natural substance yet be manmade.

It is a lengthy process of trial and error.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Under the microscope, ivory reveals its molecular structure: a three-dimensional collagen scaffolding filled with hydroxyl apatite minerals and water. Vollrath aimed to understand this distinct makeup well enough to improve upon the plastic-based substitutes that currently exist with a truly “biologically inspired” replica. “We’re still struggling to understand why it’s such a tough material,” Vollrath said. “It combines two kinds of material, mineral and collagen. Neither of them are great materials by themselves, but if you mix them up … it becomes something different.”

If successful, the project will still take years to become acccessible to the general public.  Then, of course, comes the question: will synthetic ivory help or hurt elephants?  The hope is that synthetic ivory would drive down the price of real ivory and poachers would no longer find their work profitable and get out of the business. But, there is concern that synthetic ivory would simply make it easier for real ivory to hide and be sold in the marketplace, thus maintaining or driving up demand for elephant tusks.

In any case, Vollrath hopes his research gives us insight into what makes elephant tusks so strong and so unusual in the natural world.



Photo taken at my local zoo



The Protectors

“The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes”, a documentary directed by Imraan Ismail and Kathryn Bigelow, debuted recently at the Tribeca Film Festival.

It is only eight minutes long, but it is a powerful film.  It shows the dangers rangers face daily at Garamba National Park.  It is a virtual reality film.  Gear VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift owners will be able to watch the film on May 1st using the Within app.

The film appropriately was shown Earth Day weekend.

Kathryn Bigelow previously released a film called “Last Days” about the elephant crisis.

Northern Rangelands Trust: saving wildlife, improving communities

The Northern Rangelands Trust believes that conservation is not only good from an environmental standpoint, but an economic one as well.  That is why they have worked in Northern Kenya with help from USAID to invest in saving elephants and increasing eco-tourism.  NRT was founded in 2004, and has done amazing work.  There has been a significant decline in poaching in areas where they operate.  CITES estimated in 2014 that 60% of killed African elephants were killed illegally – but that number was 46% in Northern Kenya and was continuing to trend downwards.


From Forbes Magazine:

In 2015, tourism revenues to NRT conservancies from entry and bed-night fees totaled over US$ 410,000 – a really significant income for these remote and marginalized communities, derived from their wildlife. Two safari lodges – Sarara and Il Ngwesi – are actually owned by the community, who contract operators to manage them. Wildlife tourism revenues are split 40/60 – with 40% going toward annual conservancy operating costs (like ranger salaries and vehicle fuel) and 60% going toward development projects deemed a priority by the constituent community at their Annual General Meetings. Most commonly the communities decide to spend these funds on educational bursaries for the poorest family, health care support, and water supplies to reduce the burden on women from collecting water from afar.