What Was Denied to Cecil the Lion

Only three dull incisors remained in the lion’s mouth. His top right canine, chipped and half the size of the others, has long outlived its usefulness. All his teeth were the color of ancient ivory.  A boil the size of a golf ball grew to the left of his crusty nose that not even flies would touch. His face was long and narrow for a lion, with hollows above his eyes, and when he turned around I could see every knot of his spine. At night from my tent I could hear what his body confirmed – he has not had a meal in days as he called out for his pride. SA 710          Of all the lions I’ve seen in my life, and there have been many, this one has stuck with me the longest. From our guide we learned that he and his brother ruled Londolozi for many years. In his youth he wore a magnificent black mane, now still dark but lusterless from age. They both sired many cubs and had been together all their lives. They were even together the two times I saw them at the ripe old age of 17, an age unheard of in the wild.
This is the honor denied to Cecil the Lion. Many people were disgusted by the shape that the two brothers were in. Their gaunt appearance was beautiful to me then and even more so now. Those deep set eyes told a history. Those yellowed teeth grew dull by ripping flesh, gripping napes of lioness necks and reproducing.  They were allowed to age gracefully. Together.
The last time I saw the pair, the healthier of the two (okay, I admit it, I named him Norton), gave a deep yawn before turning to face me. His mahogany eyes held my gaze before his left eye winked. In that wink I like to think we shared an understanding. I saw him for what he was – a graceful old soul that lived a long, fulfilling life. He saw me for what I was – someone appreciating that life.

SA 717

A Perspective on the Ivory Crush in Times Square


Onlookers amidst ivory waiting to be crushed at NYC’s Ivory Crush on June 19th, 2015.

           On Friday, June 19th, I went to New York City’s Times Square to watch the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, together with NGOs such as NRDC, Wildlife Conservation Project, and others, get together to destroy over 1 ton of ivory. We are losing elephants at an alarming rate – up to 96 individuals a day – or 1 elephant every 15 minutes. 
           I spent most of my childhood in Sub-Saharan Africa. Days were often spent visiting David Sheldrick’s Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Nairobi. Back then it was an intimate affair where we could get up close and personal with young elephants whose parents were victims of poaching. Weekends were spent in the game parks watching these animals lumber through eye-high grass. Once, on our way back home, a matriarch blocked our way to our airplane. We waited in a stand-off as she continually mock-charged our vehicle. Her ears wide, head high. 
           I went to the Ivory Crush in Times Square because I take a strong stance on poaching, but I wasn’t sure if I supported the destruction of ivory to send that message. As a conservationist and a poet, I wanted to get the pulse of the event before I cast my vote. Many well respected scientists, environmentalists, and organizations support the destruction of ivory. Yet I couldn’t help but balk at the idea. 
            A little before I moved to Kenya, then President Daniel Arap Moi set the precedence by burning 12 tons of ivory in Nairobi National Game Park. It was the first event of its kind. Many hailed it as taking a strong stance on poaching, and many other countries followed suit. In the last four years 37 tons of ivory has been removed from the market and destroyed.
           Has the ivory market responded? At Friday’s Ivory Crush U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said “we’re not only crushing ivory, we’re crushing the ivory market.” The ivory crush on Friday was the sixth ivory crush that has taken place in the world in the last two years. Has the ivory market responded? Yes. But not favorably. 
           Since 2011 ivory prices have doubled. According to a report, elephant poaching has also increased. If you look at the trends and numbers, it appears that these ivory obliteration events are counter-productive. By destroying the ivory the prices and demand is going up. Ivory is getting scarcer with each tusk that is destroyed. This makes poachers scramble to try and kill every elephant in sight. They are now going after younger elephants with smaller tusks, and the large tusker gene appears to have been wiped out. 
           But what are the alternatives? Selling the ivory is out of the question. This sends the message that poached ivory has value and trading it is acceptable. Even if the ivory is used for altruistic purposes – such as increasing ranger capabilities to battle poaching – it is still putting the ivory back in the market that we are trying to terminate. Likewise stock-piling the ivory is also unfavorable. There have been some “dirty officials” that leak out the goods from these stockpiles and they also create a target for crime, not to mention require a great amount of funds and manpower to keep safe. 
           Some argue that the market should be flooded. I am not quite clear how this would happen as we cannot release stockpiles. Ivory also is not necessarily cultivatable. American alligators were on the brink of extinction in the 1970s. There was a high demand for their skins for luxury goods. What ultimately saved the alligator from extinction is farming them. But you cannot farm elephants the way you can farm alligators. A single alligator lays 35 to 50 eggs a year, sometimes up to 90. Once the babies are born, they’re left to fend for themselves. An African elephant has the longest gestation, more than any other animal on Earth. They give birth to only one calf, which needs to stay with its mother for 16 years. This is not sustainable for the ivory trade.  
           There are many alternatives to ivory, however. A common alternative is bone, a byproduct of the cattle industry. It can be carved just as intricately as a tusk. Additionally, elephants aren’t the only animals that have ivory. Hippos, walruses, whales, and warthogs do as well. The latter is much more sustainable than the others, although they don’t yield giant tusks like elephants do. There is also a tree called the Tagua that produces a giant nut (up to 20”) that is remarkably similar to ivory.  Jewelry artists have said “it is beautiful, with natural whorls of color in its satiny ivory surface – less brittle and more durable than bone, less porous and polishing up more nicely than antler.” The tree, also known as the “ivory palm,” produces hundreds of nuts a year, therefore a much more renewable product.


Which is elephant ivory?

           The message that all these crushes want to send is that ivory has no value unless it is on an elephant. This is a tough message to send when the prices and value of ivory is higher than ever. Unfortunately, I have no answers. I went to the crush to try to get some, but after seeing the ivory get destroyed I left with a more sour taste in my mouth than a positive one.
           Before the crusher was turned on, many individuals gave colorful speeches. They stated facts about elephants, statistics from the ivory trade, and kept reiterating why they were destroying the ivory – to send a message that ivory is useless. Once the crusher was turned on though, I felt people’s actions spoke louder than their words. 
           What disturbed me is the rather celebratory sensation around the event. These are pieces of brutally murdered individuals. Here are notable officials and activists posing and cradling intricately carved pieces of ivory. They were all quick to take the photo-op, holding up a horse, a figure, and more disgustingly, a carved elephant, before placing it rather unceremoniously on the conveyor belt.


Waiting to place ivory on the belt to be crushed

           Once the ivory rode up this contraption and into the crusher, people seemed to forget about it. Few people sat around the machine. They seemed more interested in the ivory (you know, the stuff we’re not supposed to be interested in) being loaded than the process of crushing. And it wasn’t so much crushing as it was chipping. It was absolutely horrific. Not only did plumes of ivory dust rise in the thick New York City air, but also chips of ivory kept flying out, landing up to twenty feet away. No one seemed to notice. Once in a while a large piece of ivory shrapnel would come catapulting out of the chipper and a United States Fish and Wildlife Service agent would unceremoniously pick it up and toss it in a pile to be chipped up further. 
           At the opposite end the ivory remains swooshed and rained into the bed of trucks. Interestingly, it was this shrapnel that the officials seemed more concerned with guarding than the whole pieces, not allowing any photographs to be taken or anyone to get near. I waited until crowds began to thin to see what would happen with the shards that littered the cobbles, but nothing happened as long as I stayed. 


Chips of ivory litter the ground, seemingly forgotten

           I wish I could give my readers answers, but I cannot. I wish I knew what could be done to solve the brutal murder of elephants. I wish I could say that the Ivory Crush made me feel hopeful that it would solve this issue. But I cannot. Instead I am left with more questions and an even more dismal outlook. I also can safely say that I will never attend another mass destruction of ivory again


1 ton of ivory waiting to be crushed.

I don’t want to be a witness to an extinct species

I remember once while living in Kenya, on a cool, dreary afternoon, we drove up to a pair of rare animals in the Land Rover. We were instructed to quietly get out and approach the animals. Quietly, methodically grazing were two white rhinos. Beside them were two guards armed with assault rifles. They were with them 24/7. In my youth I remembered being let down that these behemoths were not in fact white, but gray like the rhinos. I loved how calm they were, how serene, how they grazed without putting their heads up. One of the guides called them lawnmowers. The park was closed and the sun was setting. The rhinos and their escort slinked away.

I really hope that this moment will not go down in my memory as the moment I witnessed an extinct species. I hope that human beings will come up with a solution for these majestic animals – that we can figure out how to get them to reproduce, that it will not become necessary that they have to be guarded by guards with automatic weapons 24/7. I hope we will wise up and make this world a better place for all animals on this planet.


India vs. Africa on Lions and Rhinos

When the rest of the world is having conservation issues with endangered and threatened species drastically on the decline, India has been seeing the populations of their species thriving. A new report out has shown that the endangered Indian rhinoceros population is growing – despite poaching. This is a stark contrast compared to its African counterparts who are disappearing faster than they can be counted and are expected to only be in zoos by 2030. Another animal in India that has an African equivalent, the Asiatic lion, has also been making a comeback. What is India doing right and how is Africa failing so severely?

In the early 1900s there were around 200 Indian rhinoceros alive in India. Over the years the numbers grew with a surge between 1975 and 1986 where they went from 600 to 1700. The numbers were starting to show a downward trend from 2002 to 2006, but thankfully this did not continue. Rhinos showed a 27 percent rise since 2006 with numbers of the enigmatic giant going from 2,006 to 2,544. This is an impressive increase, especially since poaching has not been eradicated and is still ongoing – 18 rhinos were killed this year.

Similarly, Asiatic lions have seen a population increase in India as well. Their success story has been beautifully captured in Roshan Patel’s film, Pride, which has received much recognition. In 1905 there were less than 50 Asiatic lions alive and they were facing extinction. Today there are more than 400 and the number keeps increasing. The population has grown 13 percent since the last count in 2005. A good portion of these lions, 40 percent, are young, which bodes well for the future of the species.

In contrast, Africa is losing both their rhinoceros and lion population that could potentially render both extinct in the wild by 2030. Western black rhino, a subspecies of black rhino, was officially declared extinct last year. Since 2002, black and white rhino populations have fallen. The lion population has fared no better. Back in 1860, there were 100,000 lions in the wild. Today there are approximately 32,000 left. The population decrease of lions is largely due to habitat loss, spread of diseases due to climate change,  and drought.

India nevertheless faces similar threats but still manages to have impressive increases in population. What are they doing right? In the case of the Asiatic lion, the Indian state of Gujart which is home to the entire population of the feline, they have tremendous pride for their lions. There have been many efforts to educate the public of the important role the lions play in the habitat. And they paid off. For the Indian rhinoceros, similar efforts have also been made. Anti-poaching camps have been established in and around wildlife sanctuaries and preserves, the Environmental and Forest Minister has sought out conservation and legal experts to figure out more effective ways to protect the beasts. Africa has made similar efforts, but it seems like they have not taken the matters as seriously and are corrupt internally. Hopefully if India keeps getting recognition for their efforts Africa will pay attention and follow suit. 


Treat our Water Better

As a child I was only allowed to bathe every two weeks. I could only occasionally flush the toilet (I’ll leave out the specific details) and our yard the predominant color was yellow than green. We’d go weeks without electricity and had to use lanterns, candles and flashlights. All of this because of water scarcity. It wasn’t until I got back to the United States did I realize people lived where water and moisture was taken for granted.
            In Kenya, when we were out and about, we didn’t trust water for “normal” reasons such as dead things an animal feces in the water. When out camping and getting water from rivers, generally boiling was sufficient. We didn’t have to worry about chemicals in this water. It continues to amaze me that Americans, in this day and age, can’t trust the water that comes out of their own tap. Furthermore, even though sections of this country are in the worst drought in 500 years, water resources are being used to exacerbate the situation rather than help it.
            A month ago coal mining operations caused a chemical leak in West Virginia. While authorities say that the water is safe to use and drink, residents continue not to trust it. Water is continued to be imported for drinking, bathing and cooking. People in California are also in an equal state of distress. There’s seventeen communities in the state that are about to completely run out of water in 60-120 days.  People are losing their businesses, their livelihoods. Consumers will soon feel the impact of the drought when we don’t have the food that California usually produces.
            Meanwhile, as people in our nation are suffering, water is being used or planning to be used, for practices that intensify the situations. If the Keystone Pipeline were to go through, we would be processing some of the most intensive, dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet. There is also some tar sands in Utah that they are considering to mine. DeSmogBlog outlines the process:

U.S. Oil Sands’ water-and-energy-intensive extraction process involves first digging up congealed tar sands, then crushing them to reduce their size. The company then mixes the crushed sand with large amounts of hot water (at a temperature of 122-176°F) to loosen up and liquefy the tarry, oil-containing residue and separating it from the sand.

Next, coarse solids sink, are subsequently removed and considered waste tailings. Air is then bubbled through the remaining water-oil mixture, which makes the oil float to the top in what’s referred to as “bitumen froth,” in industry lingo. The froth is then deaerated, meaning all the air molecules are removed.

But that is not the end. It continues and it involves even more water. Overall oil sands production takes 170million cubic meters of water – which is the equivalent of 1.7million households use in a year. None of this is water is returnable into the natural system.
              Then we have the 2nd offense – fracking. It takes up to 8million gallons of water to mix with chemicals to inject into the earth and blow it up and extract natural gas. These chemicals then percolate into the natural water systems and into our water systems. It poisons the environment. It poisons us. People can set their tap water on fire. They have to import their water because they cannot trust the water coming out of their own faucets. Animals and humans both become sick, suffering from cancer, hair loss, sensory, respiratory, neurological damage and ultimately death.
              While there’s people in this country that are suffering due to lack of water, it makes me wonder why we are using water resources to poison people. Not only that, this water is just making situations like the drought in California the new norm. We need to step back and redistribute the water in this country. We need to be aware of how our water is used and where it is going. We need to be aware of how our actions, decisions influence our water system.