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‘The Last Animals’ Sheds Light on Rhino, Elephant Extinction

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The Last Animals
Fatu and Najin, left, the only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, graze where they are kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya, March 2, 2018. VOA
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The death this month of 45-year-old Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, rings the alarm on the imminent extinction of other endangered animals.

The news also gives a renewed urgency to Kate Brooks’ documentary The Last Animals, about the threat poaching poses to the dwindling populations of rhinos and elephants.

In an interview with the Voice of America, filmmaker Kate Brooks spoke about the impact of poachers on the remaining rhinos. “Southern White Rhino population is around 20,000. With Northern Whites, the number is down to three, and the last male, Sudan, is hovering around the natural age of death and not in very good health.”

The day after this interview, Sudan died.

Sudan, the world’s last remaining male northern white rhinoceros, and his keeper at Ol Pejeta conservancy, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya, April 28, 2016. The conservancy is home to the last three white rhinos on Earth.
Sudan, the world’s last remaining male northern white rhinoceros, and his keeper at Ol Pejeta conservancy, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya, April 28, 2016. The conservancy is home to the last three white rhinos on Earth. VOA

Kate Brooks’ film The Last Animals was one of the 130 films showcased at the Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital. According to its Director of Programming, Brad Forder, Brooks’ film fit right in with the festival’s theme this year on Stories from the Frontlines, about environmental heroes, who are protecting the planet, wildlife, and endangered species. In the case of The Last Animals, the heroes are the park rangers trying to protect the dwindling herds of rhinos and elephants in African national parks.

Brooks says in the past ten years, more than a thousand rangers have been killed in clashes with poachers in conservancies and parks across Africa. She filmed deadly encounters at Kenya’s Garamba National Park.

She explained, “The decision to go to the Garamba National Park was really based on the fact that it is a place where there is a true intersection with the ivory trade and terrorism. That is the last place the white northern rhinos lived in the wild, and it is the very front lines of the ivory wars where people, poachers, and rangers, are being killed.”

The superstitious belief that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac or can cure cancer makes it the world’s most expensive animal commodity, and, in many parts of the world, it funds terrorist organizations. Despite an international ban on trade in ivory and rhino horn, Brooks says illegal trading continues, particularly in Asia.

the last animals
Najin (L) and her daughter Patu, the last two northern white rhino females, lie in their enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia National Park, Kenya March 7, 2018. VOA

“While filming in Vietnam, when we were boarding our flight to China, there was lots of individuals just filling up their suitcases, putting ivory (jewelry) on, maybe covering it up with their clothes but getting on the flight and walking straight through customs.”

Brooks’ film, The Last Animals, advocates stricter measures worldwide against that trade. She also hopes that documentaries like hers will inform people of the devastating consequences of rhino horn and ivory trading.

“I think the global consciousness is rising. Domestic ivory bans are going into effect and while South Africa might be one of the few countries left in the world where it’s okay to trade rhino horn domestically and be a country that’s still pushing to trade ivory internationally, increasingly, nobody wants it.”

Trophy, a documentary by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, looks at South Africa’s policies, making the case that only legalized rhino horn “breeding,” which means trimming the horns off the animals every few years, can stop poaching and save rhinos. “That’s kind of the idea of utilizing animals in this ‘if it pays, it stays’ way,” says Schwarz. “Now, is that the answer? I don’t know. I’m here to raise questions.”

The Last Animals
In this photo taken, Aug. 19, 2016, a herd of elephants swim and drink water in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. VOA

One of the advocates of legalized rhino horn trade showcased in Trophy is South African farmer John Hume.

In the documentary, he holds a horn and explains, “On the black market, the retail value of this horn would be a quarter million dollars. The operation is painless. It will take two years before you guys do the same procedure again. All I need is for it to be legal.” To back up his position, he points out, “Give me one animal that has gone extinct while farmers are breeding it and making money out of it.”

Brooks disagrees. “South Africa recently legalized the domestic rhino horn trade. I don’t think it’s a solution. It’s actually creating the message that somehow it’s okay again. And all of that aside, there is also the issue of, is it humane? To even treat an animal in that way?’ One of the things you see in The Last Animals is that sometimes animals can be sedated and they don’t always wake up.”

While the debate continues, endangered animals die. In the past ten years, poachers have killed 150,000 elephants. Brooks says, the year she was born, in Garamba National Park alone, there were 22,000 elephants. Today, only 1200 remain. The numbers are bleaker for the northern white rhinos. After Sudan’s death, only two females remain. VOA

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Genetic Analysis Identifies Illegal Ivory Traders

Few countries are complying with a directive to send samples from ivory busts for DNA analysis.

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Ivory
A Thai forensic expert collects a DNA sample from a confiscated elephant tusk, coming from Malawi, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. VOA

Researchers are using genetic analysis to connect the dots in the illegal ivory trade, linking multiple seizures of the valuable tusks to a common set of traffickers.

Targeting these ivory-smuggling cartels could have a major impact on the elephant poaching that is driving the animals to extinction, according to the authors of a new study.

The findings mean some suspects already facing charges from single arrests could face additional charges and stiffer penalties if convicted.

Ivory trafficking is a multibillion dollar transnational criminal enterprise with links to other illegal activities, including drug trafficking. Poaching claims an estimated 40,000 elephants each year.

Ivory
Pallet of seized raw ivory in US Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Missing tusks

University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser and colleagues have been analyzing tusks seized in ivory busts to track where poached elephants came from. They previously identified hotspots in Tanzania and Mozambique from where nearly all the ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 came.

The new findings emerged from the case of the missing tusks.

Wasser and colleagues noticed that when ivory shipments were confiscated, they often only contained one of an elephant’s pair of tusks.

When they searched through genetic data taken from large-scale ivory busts between 2006 and 2015, they found 26 cases in which a tusk from one seizure matched one from a separate shipment.

In each case, the two shipments passed through the same port within a few months of each other. Wasser said that “suggest[s] that the same major trafficking cartel was actually responsible for shipping both.”

Ivory
Thai forensic experts collect DNA samples from a confiscated elephant tusk, coming from Malawi, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. VOA

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, traces the ivory back to three major cartels based in Lome, Togo; Mombasa, Kenya; and Entebbe, Uganda.

When traffickers are caught, they typically only face charges for one shipment.

The methods Wasser’s group developed can link individual cartels to multiple shipments, and to each other.

For example, a key figure in the Uganda cartel currently is awaiting trial for one seizure. The new study links him to two others. One of those includes tusks from a 2012 incident in which poachers in a Ugandan helicopter shot 22 elephants across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“You can imagine, if this evidence is used, how much stronger a case we can build against him,” Wasser said.

Ivory``
A ranger from the Kenya Wildlife Service stands guard near stacks of ivory in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, April 28, 2016. VOA

International links found

The new study also finds links between the Togo and Kenyan cartels. East African and West African tusks were found in a shipment seized in Malaysia. Ivory from this shipment matched tusks from separate seizures linked to Lome and Mombasa.

East African drug-smuggling suspects facing charges in the United States have been linked to the Kenyan ivory trafficking ring.

“The stories that emerge (from the research) are fascinating and important,” said CEO Frank Pope of the nonprofit Save the Elephants. “Wasser’s work is helping us to close in on those networks by telling the story of the connections between the different shipments.”

Wasser’s methods have already helped investigators disrupt international trafficking operations, according to Special Agent John Brown with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations.

Also Read: Thailand: Elephants Aid in Spreading Fruit Seeds

But Brown notes that few countries are complying with a directive to send samples from ivory busts for DNA analysis. That makes it harder for law enforcement to get to the root of the problem, he added.

“A seizure of three tons of ivory looks very good on the front page of the local newspaper,” Brown said. “But if we don’t attack the transnational criminal organizations behind it, then the problem will continue.” (VOA)