Follow this series of articles and you will be able to argue the scientific management of elephants with anyone and everyone.

Part 1 introduced you to the fact that Africa’s 150 elephant populations exist in a wide variety of habitat types, that each population is subjected to often hugely different and natural environmental pressures, and that they live under very changeable, interactive conditions with Africa’s rural people. You learned that these elephant populations were, individually, either excessive, safe and/or unsafe, and that, dependent upon each of their “safety statuses”, they were (or should be) respectively subjected to either “population reduction management”, “conservation management” or “preser-vation management’. There is no “one-size-fits-all” management strategy. The safety status of each population is individually assessed and the appropriate management application is allocated accordingly.

Despite this latter reality, the Inter-national Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and a plethora of other Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Western governments, journalists and the media all still refer to the African elephant as being an “endangered species”.

NB: The USFWS even has its own Endangered Species Act (ESA), which pretty much determines HOW the USFWS addresses wildlife management issues worldwide, and it does so very badly because it does not take all the management factors into account.

The “endangered species” concept suggests that “the nominated species” as a whole is “unsafe”, and further that it is threatened with extinction, or that it will become threatened with extinction if man does not afford “the species” special protection (such as proclaiming it to be an “endangered species”). No proclamation decree – declaring the African elephant to be “an endangered species” – however, has ever acknowledged that the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is anything other than just a “species”. Such decrees never acknowledge that the African elephant has 150 different populations, that some of those populations are biologically unsafe, many are biologically safe, some are biologically excessive, and that others are even grossly excessive.

And the authors of these proclamations seemingly don’t want to know such things either. All that matters to them is that people (like me) should not “rock their boat”.

Given the fact that the African elephant does have three distinctly different “safety” statuses (all of which deserves to be managed according to the scientific management strategy applicable to each one of them, separately), when the elephant is labelled an “endangered species” by “whoever in the West”, we African wildlife managers and our governments are required (by those unnamed non-African authorities) to treat every single elephant population as though it was unsafe.

Think what this means! It means that we have to treat all our safe, excessive and grossly excessive elephant populations according to the principles of “preservation management” (protection from all harm), which amounts to gross mismanagement. It appears, however, that nobody in the West cares a damn!

The concept of endangered species, therefore, is an uninformed fallacy. There is no such animal! It simply does not exist!

When the organisers of the Great Elephant Census (GEC) – under the auspices of the IUCN – announced the results of the count at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg in 2016, everyone concerned was ecstatic. I sat in the audience in silence, and I listened.

NB: It had been a huge effort, apparently covering three years of intense activity, and I don’t want to belittle the effort by so many people who made the exercise possible. It was funded by Paul Allen (the Microsoft billionaire) and conducted by some dedicated spotter aircraft pilots, even more observers, and a host of ground staff. All concerned are commended for their great personal contributions.

When the final results were read out (verbatim below), however, I was disappointed:

• Savanna elephant populations had declined by 30 per cent (equal to 144 000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014.

• The current rate of decline is 8 per cent per year, primarily due to poaching. The rate of decline accelerated from (between) 2007 to 2014.

352 271 elephants were counted in the 18 countries surveyed. This figure represents 93 per cent of savanna elephants in these countries.

84 per cent of the population surveyed was sighted in legally protected areas, while 16 per cent were in unprotected areas. However, high numbers of elephant carcasses were discovered in many protected areas, indicating that elephants are struggling both inside and outside the parks.

In this regard I note the following:

• There are 37 elephant range states in Africa. Only 18 countries were surveyed. What happened to the other 19 countries? Why were they omitted from the GEC? No rational explanation was offered, and it made the report incomplete!

• The savanna elephant population (so the report determined) had declined by 30 per cent (equal to 144 000 elephants) during the period 2007 to 2014 (when, the report stated, “The rate of decline accelerated between 2007 to 2014”). It was during this period (2008 to 2012) that a great slaughter of elephants (44 000) occurred in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve!

NB: During the period 2008 to 2014, the much respected game warden in charge of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania (Benson Obdiel Kibonde) was temporarily transferred to Tanzania’s Pasiansi Wildlife Training Institute. He returned in 2012. One must ask the question: Why was he removed from the Selous during this particular period?

This is what Kibondi himself wrote, in a private letter, about this event: “When I left Selous Game Reserve in 2008 there were approximately 70 000 elephants (in the game reserve) according to projections based on the 2006 TAWIRI census. I went to Pasiansi Wildlife Training Centre. When I came back in July 2012, I was shocked by the extent of the poaching that had taken place during the four years. The TAWIRI census of October 2013 had it that there were only 13 084 elephants remaining in the Selous Game Reserve. This was (the result of) an average annual (poachers’) kill of not less than 11 000 elephants per year (total 44 000).”

In this same private letter, Kibonde emphasized the following: “Remember that 100% of poaching in our protected areas in Tanzania is 100% of the making of Tanzanians.”

NB: I have wondered ever since I first read these words just what Kibonde meant by them.

At that time, Jakaya Kikwete was president of Tanzania, and many Tanzanians made the following point: Considering the massive scale and prolongation of the poaching, Kikwete must surely have known all about what was taking place. The big question therefore is: Why, with all the resources of the state at his disposal, did Kikwete not bring the poachers to book? I can find no report of even a single poacher being arrested during this entire and prolonged poaching event!

He didn’t do anything to stop the poaching, many Tanzanians responded, “… because he was the chief instigator”.

The British-based animal rights group, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), in a question-and-answer interview with National Geographic regarding this matter, asserted that there was “collusion between the Chinese and Tanzanian governments at the highest level”.

At one point, the EIA’s report states that: “In 2005 (which was the year that Kikwete became president) there were some 142 000 elephants in Tanzania (as a whole) and that when President Kikwete left office in 2015, this overall population had dropped to 55 000.”

During this question-and-answer interview, the EIA was asked the following: “Is EIA saying that Kikwete is personally culpable for this decline?” The NGO spokesman sidestepped the issue by responding, “We know that corruption takes place at all levels. We are asking: Why hasn’t the president done more to curb the decline?” Many, many people asked similar questions!

The Selous poaching episode directly affects the GEC event, and the conclusions that were drawn from it, particularly because the 44 000 elephants killed in the Selous (2008 to 2012) were included (but not specifically mentioned) in the GEC’s report. (They were part of the 144 000 mentioned in the GEC as having been “poached”, without the poachers being identified.)

To understand the full dimensions of Africa’s post-colonial poaching events, however, I have to make mention of a much broader case history, starting in East Africa (Kenya) in 1970.

In 1970, Kenya officially claimed to be home to 275 000 elephants. By 1989 that number had been reduced to 20 000. Up until that time, this level of elephant poaching was unprecedented anywhere in Africa.

What are the facts?

Here is an abridged version of a very fine article on this subject, posted on the Internet by “MaVulture” on 12 March 2012. It is entitled “Mother of the nation who led plunder of beloved motherland”. It tells the story very clearly and it corroborates several verbal and written reports that I have received from several Kenyans.

“‘Mama Ngina’, as many Kenyans affectionately call their First Lady (wife of the late President Jomo Kenyattta), has a public image that radiates calm and dignity. When visiting her husband’s mausoleum every August (Jomo Kenyatta died on 12 August 1978) Ngina Kenyatta is always resplendent in colourful African fabrics and matching headgear, and she emanates the image of loss and courage, the epitome of pain and sacrifice.

“This mystique, however, is merely a facade. The real Mama Ngina is a powerful business operator whose aggressive pursuit of money at the height of Kenyatta’s power saw her rise to become the richest woman in Africa.

“Mama Ngina’s claim to fame in the 1970s, however, is unique. Multiple but reliable media outlets of that time alleged that her enormous wealth stemmed from elephant poaching and ivory smuggling that almost wiped out the species from the landscapes of Kenya”.

Charles Hornsby, in his book, Kenya: A history since independence (1963–2011), explains how well-connected cartels smuggled several kinds of game trophy contraband to Asian countries to mint millions of US dollars. The ivory and skins recovered from the butchered animals were smuggled into Hong Kong, Japan and China, where there was an insatiable demand. He records that at least 15 000 elephants were killed each year (during the 1970s and 1980s), while 10 000 black rhinos were shot between 1973 and 1979.

Senior government officials, particularly those who were members of the Kenyatta family, were involved in the poaching activities, and government vehicles were used to ferry the game trophies from the wildlife sanctuaries to coastal depots from where they were shipped directly to Far Eastern markets. Legal procedures were ignored and the goods were dispatched without any legal export papers.

Mama Ngina was cited as being the chief butcher, although she did not personally pull the triggers or unleash poisoned arrows on elephants. She was, nevertheless, the matron who protected, controlled and paid those who did (she provided “her” poacher employees with “immunity from arrest”).

NB: One story has it that two Kenyan village hunters were arrested by the police and thrown into gaol for being in possession of 26 000 (black and white) Colobus monkey skins. The very next day, the police received a letter “from the highest office in the land”, which advised them that the two hunters were in legal possession of those skins. The police, therefore, were instructed to immediately release the prisoners together with their skins.

The plethora of information that surrounds this era of Kenya’s history includes the suggestion that it was Mama Ngina who was responsible for banning hunting in Kenya in 1987, and for the disbanding of the White (professional hunter) Hunters’ Guild. It is alleged that she did not do this because she was against safari hunting, but because the white professional hunters of that era, while conducting their safari hunting operations, were discovering all the elephant carcasses left behind by her village hunter-poachers, and they were reporting this information directly to the press. Banning hunting and disbanding the professional hunters’ organisation was the only way that Mama Ngina was able to keep her nefarious activities hidden from the public.

Dr Rolf Baldus, president of the Tropical Game Commission of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) spent 13 years (1987 to 2006) working in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve (SGR). He reports that in 1976, the SGR had been home to 110 00 elephants and that, due to commercial poaching, this number had been reduced to 55 000 by 1986. And here is the interesting part of his disclosure: He claims that “the poaching had its roots in political and business circles in Tanzania, in the villages bordering the SGR, and partly within the conservation system itself”.

NB: When reading these numbers, to avoid confusion, remember that elephant populations are capable of doubling their numbers every ten years!

In another report, Baldus (2005), commenting on elephant poaching in Tanzania over a much longer period (1977 to 1993), claimed that the country’s elephant population fell from 365 000 to 53 000. And he had this to say about the perpetrators: “Village poachers and game scouts did the shooting, but ‘big people’ – politicians, civil servants, businessmen and even hunting operators – masterminded the slaughter.”

In all these dissertations, Baldus makes no mention of the much-vaunted (and mythical) Far Eastern commercial poaching mafia (because it does not exist)! Nor does he refer to CITES (because, in those days, the political elites of East Africa ignored the convention’s very existence).

Now we can, perhaps, better understand what Kibonde meant when he said, “Remember that 100% of poaching in our protected areas in Tanzania is 100% of the making of Tanzanians.”

This pattern of events seems to have been duplicated in Mozambique (this millennium) when huge numbers of elephants were removed from Mozambique’s Niassa Province under very similar circumstances (although I have no names for the orchestrators).

The same pattern of events took place in Zimbabwe during the 1980s and 1990s, when the country’s vice-president, Simon Muzenda, was the poaching linchpin (especially black rhino poaching). He was supported by his brother-in-law, T Mudariki (Member of Parliament), by Elias Makombe (director of the country’s department of national parks and wildlife management), by Graham Knott (head of the national park’s investigation unit), by Bill Holms, allegedly an American CIA agent, and by two (unnamed) alleged members of South African Military Intelligence.

Our journey now takes us to Zambia, where it has been alleged (by professional hunter John Coleman in an open letter to American ecologist Dr Andre Degeorges) that during the 1980s, 75 000 elephants and all the remaining black rhinos were killed by an organised poaching ring in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. The army and the national park game rangers did most of the shooting, using military weapons, and everyone seemed to understand and accept the fact that the poaching was orchestrated and controlled by Zambia’s president, Kenneth Kaunda.

Today, South Africans are contending with massive rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, perpetrated by village hunters who live in Mozambique just across the international boarder. The names of the poachers are known to the South Africans. Their vehicles are known. Their places of residence are known. So, if the South Africans know all these things, the Mozambican authorities must know them, too. So why have the Mozambican authorities not assisted South Africa by arresting the rhino killers? The reasons are obvious. It can only be that somebody in high authority in the Mozambican government is getting a huge cut from the illegal sale of poached rhino horn.

The extent of all this poaching, which was carried out over multiple continuous decades, was/is an astronomical event. And, if it is all true, it was not carried out by village hunters acting on their own cognisance. It was orchestrated by the political elites and the countries’ top businessmen, and the village hunters (and others) who did the killing, were given political immunity from arrest. That is why none of the poachers were ever brought to trial.

When the people reporting the results of the GEC talk about elephant poaching, therefore, who and what are they talking about? Are they referring to the village hunters who are used like disposable pawns by their government leaders? Are they referring to the game rangers, the policemen and the army soldiers who pulled the triggers? Or are they referring to the government leaders (the people who orchestrated the poaching events)? Just stating that 144 000 elephants were “killed by poachers” doesn’t tell us an awful lot about what is happening to our elephants in Africa. It also doesn’t tell us how to rectify that which is going wrong. And this statement is, anyway, a huge and politically sanitised red herring.

One result is that it still gives Western animal rightist fanatics reason enough to continue demanding the burning of ivory (and of rhino horn) stockpiles, and to continue demanding the banning of ivory (and rhino horn) sales into a legitimate and properly controlled market. And none of those actions help us to better manage the elephant or the rhino on the ground.

I cannot, therefore, just accept the GEC report on face value. But there is a lot more criticism to come – and it is even more important than the issues I have covered in this article.

The GEC provided us with a list of numbers – that is all. And from that, with a little more effort, we would be able to work out population density figures for the different game reserves that were included in the count. I admit that! It gives us nothing, however, that can help us manage our elephants properly and/or better. That is what we really need. That is what Africa’s elephants need, too. And that is what Africa’s national parks need if their biological diversities are to be saved for posterity.

So, you can look forward to this elephant management saga continuing in the months ahead. The tales take many twists and turns, but along the way the reader will gain ever-greater insight into the way we have to think when dealing with matters of such great importance. And nothing is more important than knowing how best to manage Africa’s most iconic species – the African elephant.

• References: Most of these factual references were drawn from my book, Elephant conservation – The facts and the fiction.