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At last, good news for elephants

WITH massive tusks that touched the ground, Satao towered over the rest of his herd.

One of the last great “tuskers”, the beast estimated to be around 50 years old was heralded as Kenya’s biggest, oldest, and arguably most iconic elephant. Tourists from around the world would flock to see Satao in his prime.

Yet his celebrity status, and the added protection it afforded him, was not enough to save Kenya’s most beloved bull elephant.

On May 30th, 2014, he was found dead. He was the victim of a poacher’s poisoned arrow. His face crudely hacked off. His ivory, gone.

Satao is just one casualty of the vicious ivory trade decimating the African elephant population; a trade that is estimated to cost Africa 20,000 to 30,000 elephants every year.

The continent’s current population is estimated to be as low as 415,000 — a decline of more than 100,000 since 2007.

However, it is not all bad news.

On December 31, 2017, China’s legal ivory trade ground to a standstill. China is thought to be the world’s largest consumer of ivory.

The move is in accordance with a 2015 announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and former US President Barack Obama. Both leaders vowed to enact “near complete” ivory bans within their respective countries.

America’s came into effect in June 2016.

In November last year, Donald Trump’s administration announced it would lift the ban on importing elephant hunt trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, but after a political backlash, Mr Trump put the decision on hold.

The benefits of the 2015 decision are already starting to be felt.

Craig Millar, Head of Security and Field Operations for Big Life Foundation, told news.com.au: “Since China’s ban on ivory has come into effect we’ve seen not so much a drop in poaching, but a drop in prices.

“Kenya has been showing a steady decline in poaching for the last three years, and I’m hoping this year it will be a decline again. We reacted quite quickly to the most recent ivory poaching crisis so our elephant population is probably one of the least affected over the last five years.”

Mr Millar added that a drop in prices is only a good thing.

“Immediately after the announcement, we saw prices drop by as much as 50 to 60 per cent. And that just means the poacher on the ground here is getting way less than anyone at the end of the supply chain, so there’s even less incentive for him to risk his life.

“China seems to have a pretty firm hold of what’s going on, and the government deciding against something seems to be pretty readily accepted.”

All that aside, the poaching crisis has left is scars in Kenya, and the people working on the front line of conservation are not exempt.

“There are two scenes that have stuck with me,” Mr Millar said. “There was one, where six elephants were killed in a single poaching incident. A whole family basically mowed down, and one of those happened to be a pregnant female. And just the other day I was flying, and I saw a baby elephant less than a month old get killed; not for its ivory, that was more a case of senseless human wildlife conflict. Those are the worst things I’ve ever seen on the job.”

In addition to being faced with such brutal scenes, Mr Millar and his team place their lives on the line on a daily basis to protect Big Life’s animals. The foundation currently manages an area just under two million acres.

“There are lots of times you feel personally threatened doing this job … but we’ve been very lucky as we’ve never lost a ranger to a poacher, we’ve just had injuries,” he said.

The biggest impact has been on the animals themselves. The poaching crisis has brought around significant behavioural shifts.

Mr Millar has seen Big Life’s resident big tusker “One Ton” hide his tusks from human gaze by shoving his head into a bush on more than one occasion.

“They’re very clever. I’ve seen a number of other changes in the animals that can be attributed to poaching. Their behaviour changes drastically depending on which area they’re in. They know where they’re safe, and they’ll be very relaxed; One Ton in particular, you can almost touch if he’s in the right place. But you find him elsewhere, and he’s much more nervous. It goes to the extent when if an elephant has been killed, all other elephants will move away from the area for the next couple of days, even if they weren’t in the immediate vicinity — they pass that message along.”

It doesn’t stop there. If a bigger, older animal does get killed, it impacts the population for generations.

“Taking out an older female in a herd is taking out their knowledge store. Elephants teach their young for 20-30 years, and a female will be 40, close to 50, before she’s ready to take on that role as a matriarch. If you lose your top two or three females in a herd, suddenly the survivors aren’t going to know where to find water in the dry season, where the best forage is, how to protect each other.

“Males are hugely affected in that they bred right up until their old age. They only slowdown in the last four to five years of their life. Taking out those big males means suddenly you’re getting immature males breeding, and passing on an inferior gene pool because they haven’t really proven themselves.”

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