Human’s avarice for ivory has resulted in thousands of unfathomable elephant atrocities and senseless suffering that has pushed the species to the brink of extinction. In 2015, the U.S. and China announced they will work together to enact a near complete ban on the import and export of ivory. As an industry that has largely been driven by China and, if substantiated, these claims could be a ray of light for one of the most endangered animals in the kingdom.
However, as the famous saying goes, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” With the worldwide attention on elephant ivory, hippo teeth, which can grow up to three-feet-long, have become the next target. Since the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species officially imposed a ban on ivory trading in 1990, about 30,000 pounds per year of hippo teeth have been exported from Africa.
On a recent trip to Kenya, I had the unfortunate displeasure of meeting these facts face-to-face. On the banks of the Mara River, the infamous transient point of the great wildebeest migration, I met a Conservancy Ranger, a local Kenyan, named Ivan. He led me along a narrow path above the riverbed to view pods of hippos. They clumped together in the river, every few minutes lifting their heads above the waterline to welcome my arrival. Despite their label as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, they were playful to watch. Their tiny ears and eyes would appear from the murky river and then, with a splash, they would disappear. The river is everything to the hippo, Ivan explained, it is their lifeline. The only real time they leave the river is during their nightly ritual of traveling to nearby plains to consume grasses. Contrary to their aggressiveness, they are vegetarians.
As we neared the end of our trek, we reached the Mara Bridge, spanning the divide between Kenya and Tanzania. An undeniable stench filled the air. Our gaze fell to the water beneath the structure, and as if to mark the metaphorical significance of the passage, lay a poached hippo. It had been killed the previous night, probably as it grazed unsuspectingly under the cover of darkness. They had found spear punctures in its body, and its teeth were missing. It had somehow, in unthinkable pain, made its way back to the river, its home, to die.
Without prompt, Ivan turned to me and said, “If we don’t stop poachers, your grandchildren will never be able to see Kenya’s great animals. They will be all gone.”
Rangers like Ivan work tirelessly to reduce poaching, encourage stewardship, foster understanding among local communities and visiting tourists, and help illustrate how the economic value of these animals alive, outweighs any short-term gain from their death.
Ivan told me he sometimes thinks the poachers use “black magic” to kill the animals. He doesn’t understand how poachers continue to be unscathed by the defenses of both rangers and some of the fiercest natural hunters on the planet. While I don’t believe the poachers are armed with anything other than human weapons and a moral deficiency, I do believe I witnessed magic that day. I witnessed magic in people like Ivan, who deeply care about the future of these endangered animals, the future of his country, and future state of the world that will be left for my hypothetical grandkids.
If Newton is correct, for every poaching incident there will be an equal and opposite reaction. I pray this reaction is not just a movement from tusks to teeth. But instead, a movement from killing to conservation.
Featured image source: Paul Souders