Why This Ocean Expert Is Trying to Stop Elephant Poaching in Africa

Carl Safina's next book will, in part, focus on the unprecedented elephant poaching wave sweeping Africa.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officials display recovered elephants tusks and illegally held firearms taken from poachers, at their headquarters in Kenya's capital Nairobi on January 16, 2013. (Photos: Noor Khamis / Reuters)

Feb 5, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

When you think of writer and scientist Carl Safina, you think oceans.

His lyrical and popular books have covered sea turtles, albatrosses and whales. From his best known work, Song for the Blue Ocean, to his latest, The View From Lazy Point, Safina's subject of choice has been water and the animals that survive in it. Until now, that is.

For his next subject, Safina is heading to higher, dryer ground—the veld of Africa, where he's researching a new book that's set to cover the unprecedented elephant poaching epidemic that's spreading across the continent.

In 2012, Kenya, for example, lost approximately 360 elephants to poaching, a figure that jumped from 289 the previous year. At least 40 poachers were killed last year as rangers battled the raiders.

The news isn't any better so far in 2013. In January, Kenyan authorities seized two tons of illegal elephant ivory at the Kenyan port of Mombasa that was bound for Indonesia. And that comes on the heels of custom agents in Hong Kong discovering 779 elephant tusks hidden in the false bottoms of shipping crates from Kenya, which represented at least 389 elephant poaching deaths.

TakePart caught up with Safina via email from Africa, where he had just left the Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, one of the continent's leaders in elephant conservancy.

TakePart: So...why Africa?

Carl Safina: I’ve always been interested in many kinds of animals, animal behavior, conservation of wildlife and habitats. I’ve worked a lot with birds, especially seabirds and birds of prey. I focused much of my work on oceans because I realized I couldn’t save the world, so I figured, well, I’ll just try to save 70 percent of Earth’s surface. But my interests have always been deeper and broader because it’s all connected, and it’s all miraculous. I’m working on a book about the lives of several kinds of animals, some of which are oceanic too.

Elephant Poaching in Africa is big news today. What have you learned in your recent visit?

In the 1980s there was tremendous escalation of elephant poaching in Africa, which was effectively ended by awareness campaigns in Europe and the U.S., where the demand was coming from, and by a ban on ivory agreed by member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). That saved elephants then, though a variety of countries in north and West Africa lost or nearly lost them. For 20 years, other populations increased. Then around 2009, with more newly affluent people in China and with China vastly increasing its presence in Africa (there are people from China very visibly supervising road building crews, for instance, and doing lots of physical construction work here now), prices and demand began skyrocketing. Ivory prices are higher than ever, smuggling and corruption worse than ever, and elephant poaching in Africa is now out of control.

Is there any way to make a real dent in China's booming demand for ivory?

Yao Ming has been here looking at and writing about the horrendous situation with elephants and rhinos. A Chinese voice like his is needed to spark a Chinese desire to stop the slaughter and save the animals. I don’t know if it will work. Time is an issue now.

How much does government corruption play into the epidemic of elephant poaching in Africa?

Obviously there are no statistics. My sense is, it’s significant.

What do you think of Kenya's announcement that they'll be investing $200 million to fight poaching?

I think they are getting serious. In the past, Kenya has been a leader; for instance, with its very public burning of its ivory stockpile more than 20 years ago to help end the poaching then and to show that Kenya understands that live elephants are worth more than dead ones. But poaching is the acute short-term problem. Longer term, the question is whether there will be enough room left for elephants. They cannot survive well on protected areas alone. Their movements are huge. They range well beyond parks and reserves. And they get into conflict with villagers and farmers. As with everything it comes down to the fact that there are too many humans for other animals to continue to exist.

What's the one story that stood out from your time on the ground at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust?

I fell in love with that one very confiding little baby named Barsilinga. And the compassion of the keepers and their intuitive understanding was wonderful to see. It was incredible to move through the bush as part of an elephant herd, and see how aware of each other they are and how responsive to their caretakers they were.

What's next for you—in terms of elephants and oceans?

My next book will feature five kinds of animals. Elephants are one. Stay tuned.