What you need to know:
- Whatever the reality of the Kenyan elephant is, the Africa-wide picture looks extremely bleak for the pachyderm.
- Studies have shown that in parts of coastal and western Kenya, and in Tanzania where old people are killed in witch-hunts, the main reason is to eliminate what societies think are “useless” people who eat the little food there is, and don’t help much by way of work.
- The only difference is that they would have been killed at a slightly slower rate.
Today, we shall talk elephants. Actually, not elephants, but human beings.
The “disappearing” Kenya elephant has been big news in recent months. Conservationists have sounded the alarm bells, saying Kenyan poachers (who are working overtime these days) and the loss of elephant habitats to humans, mean that there could be no elephant left in the country in the next 10 years.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) disagrees. It puts Kenya’s elephant population at 38,000 that, it says, is from 34,000 recorded five years ago.
That said, Kenya certainly has more world-beating poachers than it it has world-leading long-distance runners. For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature reports that the population of elephants plummeted by 85 per cent between 1973 and 1989.
Whatever the reality of the Kenyan elephant is, the Africa-wide picture looks extremely bleak for the pachyderm.
According to WWF, in the 1930s and 1940s, the population of the African elephant was somewhere between 3-5 million. Today, various estimates put the surviving population at between 450,000 and 700,000.
To understand how we got to this shameful point, WWF says that about 100,000 elephants were being slaughtered in Africa every year in the 1980s, and some countries lost up to 80 per cent of their herd.
Today, though, the troubling thing about the fate of the African elephant is that it mirrors the fate of African human beings.
The way Kenya and Tanzania (currently Africa’s top poachers) treat elephants, for example, is the same way some of its societies treat old men and women.
Elephants and old poor Africans have a couple of things in common. A healthy elephant lives to an average age of 70 years. Life expectancy in Africa is 54 years. In Kenya it is nearly 57 years, and Tanzania 58. Everything being the same, an elephant can expect to live longer than the average Kenyan and Tanzanian.
That is problem enough, but it becomes very dangerous for the elephant because an adult one eats a lot – about 136 kilogrammes of food a day. If you are poor, live long, occupy land that a young person is eyeing, and eat a lot, then in Africa, you are asking for death.
Studies have shown that in parts of coastal and western Kenya, and in Tanzania where old people are killed in witch-hunts, the main reason is to eliminate what societies think are “useless” people who eat the little food there is, and don’t help much by way of work.
This is also the reason why, in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, a very large number of children are considered to be “possessed by demons” and killed or banished from their communities – like old people, they are considered to be little more than additional mouths that bring no incomes to their clans.
Old women, these studies have shown, are particularly targeted because they are more vulnerable. Usually their husbands, who were the “children of the home” are dead, and hungry and poor in-laws thus kill them off, take their land, and grab their harvest because they have few blood relatives to protect them.
The African elephant is pretty much in the same position. It lives for too long. Then because it is very difficult to domesticate, and lives in places that are increasingly being ravaged by environmental degradation, it covers a wider area in search of food, and multiplies its confrontation with humans many times over.
Those factors then make a lethal combination with destructive cultural practices like witch killings, which have created a high tolerance for murdering “demon children”, and also old and isolated people, to remove them from the increasingly desperate race for dwindling resources.
That is why, while poaching accounts for a large percentage of the massacre of elephants, even without it, they would still be under siege.
The only difference is that they would have been killed at a slightly slower rate.
After all, lions have nothing near as value in Asian markets as elephant tusks, but they too are endangered. It is estimated that there were about 100,000 lions in the African wild in the 1960s. That is down to fewer than 35,000 today. They died in the same resource-war.
The bigger story those numbers tell about Africa is an even bigger tragedy. We kill elephants because we kill people.
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