As a kid, my second favorite animal was the African elephant. My favorite was the woolly mammoth, which once roamed across our own North America, as well as the steppes of Eurasia.
Unfortunately, all that remains of mammoths are cave paintings, that and their forlorn bones and tusks – lonely relics of a bygone era. Mammoths and their cousins the mastodons are extinct, gone forever, felled by the Ice Age, or so said the encyclopedias and textbooks of my youth. Apparently their shaggy coats didn’t offer enough protection from the piercing cold, or overheated them in the warm whispering winds of an interglacial.
It took a trip some years later to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles to suggest otherwise. Exhibits at the George C. Page Museum there depicted the human role in the demise of the woolly mammoth. These exhibits pointed out that the mammoths and scores of other large beasts (megafauna) in North America had survived multiple advances and retreats of the massive ice sheets that occurred during the Pleistocene. Until the final advance, when suddenly everything changed.
What changed was that the Earth’s supreme predator arrived from Asia equipped with technology no more advanced than spears and projectile points but a cunning that brute size could not match. During that final southward surge of the ice – and the corresponding drop in sea level – humans are believed to have marched across the land bridge over the Bering Strait from the Asian continent into a North American primeval paradise teeming with large, wondrous, and dangerous creatures.
There were giant (4-ton) ground sloths, dire wolves, tapirs, peccaries, short-faced bears, American lions, giant condors, giant beavers, and not just fearsome saber-toothed cats but even a 9-ft long “sabertooth salmon” that would have dwarfed even the king salmon. All of these marvels vanished suddenly in one of the greatest mass extinction events in the recent history of life on Earth.
Upon learning that scientists now implicate human beings in the demise of the woolly mammoth, I used to find solace that at least its relative the elephant survives in the wild to this day – if not on our own continent. Recent news out of Africa has shaken that solace.
The Wildlife Conservation Society has announced the results of a 9-year study of population trends among forest elephants in Central Africa. The study found that the numbers of these elephants had dropped by 62% from 2002 to 2011. The cause of this sharp decline? Not habitat destruction, but poaching, for the ivory in their tusks of course. This “blood ivory” is destined for Asia, principally China. Some 25,000 elephants are being slaughtered annually for the illicit ivory trade.
To a wildlife conservationist and population activist, the welcome attention this ongoing outrage is receiving still falls woefully short of the mark. The population angle is conspicuously absent. (So what else is new?) Yet population figures into this story in at least two ways.
First, the countries of Central Africa where the elephant slaughter is underway all have ultra-high fertility rates, skyrocketing human populations, and widespread poverty. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a total fertility rate (TFR) of 6.3 – that is, on average, each woman gives birth to more than six babies. Congo’s 2012 population of 69 million is projected to grow 2.8 times to 194 million by 2050! Its per capita GDP is $216, less than one half of one percent of America’s $49,601 per capita GDP. It’s no wonder that elephant poaching is an attractive career option for an ambitious young man who needs to put food on the plate for his growing family or wants a little cash to purchase consumer goods like cell phones.
The original scientific paper in the online journal PLoS One concluded: “High human population density, hunting intensity, absence of law enforcement, poor governance, and proximity to expanding infrastructure are the strongest predictors of decline.” It’s frightening to say so, but the population projections just cited ensure that all of these factors will go from bad to worse in the coming years.
The second population angle is less obvious, but concerns gigantic China. While China has taken extraordinary and controversial steps to slow its population growth, there are still 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with rising incomes, each having a greater per capita impact on the environment as they grow more affluent. And now more and more can afford to buy ivory. Unless China’s rising affluence is accompanied by a more enlightened environmental ethic, the elephant is doomed, pure and simple. Anti-poaching campaigns will be overwhelmed by powerful demographic and economic forces.
Famed biologist E.O. Wilson once estimated that the total biomass (living weight) of all 7 billion humans on Earth probably outweighs by 100 times that of any large animal species (including the dinosaurs) that ever existed on land. With this alarming news out of Africa, that ratio just got even more lopsided. And the African elephant, like the woolly mammoth before it, may yet be pushed over the edge of the precipice into the abyss of extinction – a void from which there is no return.