A patch of moonlight

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There are also miles and miles of mines, for gold, diamonds, bauxite, manganese, iron, you name it. Asia is too rich, in what we call resources, for the elephants’ good.

So are the elephants themselves. In the last four decades, seventy per cent of elephants worldwide have disappeared. International trade in ivory is at last illegal but each country makes its own laws about domestic sales, of ivory from elephants killed before it was made illegal. The cut-off year was 1990. Today, nearly all countries have banned domestic trade entirely. Even China, the largest consumer of ivory in the world. But a few countries still allow it. Ivory is very difficult to date, so it is easy for ivory from elephants killed illegally, since 1990, to enter the domestic market in, for example, Canada, where selling pre-1990 ivory is still legal. And the black market worldwide is huge. A pound of ivory sells for 1,500 US dollars.

Every year, around 20,000 elephants are killed for their tusks. Among Asian elephants, it is only the males that have tusks, so they are the ones that get poached.

Indian elephant tusks, photo from Wikimedia Commons

All this tumbles through my head as we watch our visitor tip his head to pour water down his throat. His tusks glint in the moonlight.

Long tusks can weigh 250 pounds. The ivory he is carrying, through a countryside where the average family has less than 20 dollars surplus income a month, may be worth 350,000 dollars.

In the early days here, the sixties and seventies, Priya’s family saw elephants with huge tusks, and quite calm. Poaching was low, no one was harassing them. But we have been such bad predators to them and one by one those males were poached. No more enormous tusks.

Today, there is so much poaching, and so much of the land where the elephants’ natural food grows has disappeared, that conflict has increased between hungry elephants and poor people protecting their crops. Poisoned, shot at, electrocuted, elephants are becoming more and more – well, to themselves, anxious, angry, suspicious, embittered, het up. And to human beings, dangerous.

In the last five years, 2,036 humans and over 500 elephants have been killed in human elephant-conflict. (Conflict with tigers killed 275 people in the same years.) Last year, nearly 500 people died. North-east of here, in Orissa where my brother has spent most of his life, 115 people were killed, and 132 injured, in human-elephant encounters. Orissa’s Keonjhar district, torn by large-scale iron and manganese mines, reported 112 elephants in the 2002 elephant census. In 2017 it reported only 40.The destruction of elephant habitat there, and elephants, had made human-elephant conflict worse. Just last month there, in January, in Hariharpur village, a tusker trampled to death a ten-year-old girl playing outside her home.

Indian tusker, photo by Reji from Flickr

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