On Saturday 24th September, the opening day of CITES CoP17 (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust will again be joining in the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos.
Having planted the seed for the marches three years ago when we organised the first International March for Elephants through our iworry campaign, the DSWT remains committed to supporting what has become a truly global movement for both elephants and rhinos. To witness the growth of this movement has been inspiring, as more and more people take up the mantle for these two highly threatened species.
This year, the marches have been organised to begin on the opening day of the CoP17 (Conference of the Parties), during which time delegates representing 183 countries will decide the fate of elephants and rhinos, among other species, with the decisions they take.
As a field based organisation, operating Anti-Poaching Teams, Aerial Surveillance Units and Mobile Veterinary Teams, we at the DSWT have been witness on a first-hand basis to the impact increased demand for ivory has had on elephants. That demand, which was fueled by a previous CITES decision to allow for the one-off sale of more than 100 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan, has seen elephant numbers decimated across Africa. Figures recently revealed by the African Elephant Census, which took two years to complete, further demonstrated the impact. In the area surveyed, which covered 93% of the elephants' range there are now just 352,271 (tragically this figure will already be lower, given the report was completed over one month ago). Between 2007 and 2014, elephant populations fell by a staggering 30%, while in Tanzania they have plummeted by 60% in just five years. The census went on to state that at current rates we could see 50% of the remaining population lost in the next 10 years.
It's what is behind all these figures that sends shudders down the spine. Individual lives brutally brought to an end with snares, poison arrows, gunshots and traps, many animals not killed instantly, leaving them to walk for hours, days and even weeks carrying fatal wounds that slowly but surely will kill them.
In Kenya, where we operate four Mobile Veterinary Teams with the Kenya Wildlife Service, and a Sky Vet project, we have been fortunate to save the lives of thousands of these injured elephants. However we haven't been able to save them all and, across the continent, tens of thousands of elephants are being killed every year. Delve deeper still and you will find orphaned elephants, for a poacher does not care if an animal is a mother with a suckling calf, totally reliant on its mother for its own survival. These are the forgotten victims, left to die from starvation, dehydration or by predators - their fate sealed by an illegal human act. Except in Kenya, for those we at the DSWT have been able to rescue. Working alongside KWS and often with the support of other NGOs, we have been able to rescue hundreds of orphaned elephant calves over the years and more than 100 of these once fragile and ill-fated babies are now living a full and natural life back in the wild. In fact many have gone on to have their own wild born calves and, in at least one instance that we know of, to become a grandmother!
It is impossible to put into words the effect on one's psyche when arriving at the scene of a rescue, especially where a mother has been poached for her ivory and the baby has seen this ordeal unfold. In this situation, more often than not the baby is completely traumatized and cannot know that not all humans are the same, not all humans crave ivory or the death of an elephant to secure it. The majority of us wish to see a world where elephants roam free from fear of poachers, where they are respected and cherished as living beings and allowed to spend their days eating, drinking, playing and socialising. Something many humans are able to take for granted in their lives, yet we fail to help other species, with whom we share this planet, to have the same right. Roi was just 10 months old when she was found next to her dead mother, who'd been killed with a poisoned spear. She was completely confused and disorientated, her life source taken from her, for reasons she could not understand.
That was two years ago. Today Roi is healthy, strong and surrounded by love, exuded by her fellow orphaned elephants in our care - there are currently 24 babies at our Nursery alone - and our keepers, who provide 24 hour a day care to the infants, playing the role of surrogate mother. To see Roi today brings both joy and heartache, for while she is happy now and will return to the wild when grown, in a world without ivory sales she would never have needed our help for she would be living wild with her mother and the rest of her herd. This is not the world elephants face. That can however change and, over the next two weeks in South Africa, which is hosting CoP17, delegates have it in their power to create the world elephants deserve and one where they can more safely roam the plains.
We march not only for Roi, but for the countless elephants orphaned by poaching, for their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters and for the future of their entire species. CITES delegates and National Politicians really do have the ability to affect real and lasting change for elephants, and rhinos, through the closure of all domestic ivory markets, and the reclassification of all elephants to what CITES term, Appendix 1 - this affords the highest degree of protection and lists those species which are threatened with extinction. Trade in these species or their derivatives is permitted only in exceptional scientific circumstances. For elephants, this would mean transferring those populations from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe currently listed under Appendix II to Appendix I and would ensure Africa's elephants, which roam across national borders, are all classified in the same grouping.
We know the marches are seen and heard by these people and that is why they have such an important role to play, especially at the opening of CoP17. So if you can, please join a march near you and show them that all of us, humanity, wants change and a world where elephants are seen only as elephants and able to live without fear.
To find a march near you and to learn more about CoP17 and the importance of this conference for elephants, rhinos and other species, visit: http://iworry.org/timeline/