The poisoning of ten rare pygmy elephants in Borneo comes at a time of serious concern for the global conservation effort. It follows on from the end of a year in which a ferocious hike in the poaching of African elephants and rhinoceroses was widely reported in the international media.
This is, of course, part of a general trend over the past two centuries, during which time the population figures for many of the world’s largest animals and top predators has declined dramatically. However, it is also indicative of a worrying recent trend in which poaching has accelerated in many parts of the world. The reasons for this are many; the East Asian obsession with powdered medicines made from tusks and horn; the encroachment of humans into traditional animal territory; the protection of livestock; the appearances of animals in warzones.
At the same time, it should be noted that dedicated conservationists have far from given up. More people than ever dedicate their lives to the well-being and, in some cases, virtual resurrection of the world’s fauna and flora.
Perhaps what is happening currently is government negation of conservationist duty in many vulnerable countries. Government concern for its animals and plants tends to be fitful. Conservation efforts will be sponsored (mainly with an expectant boon in tourism to follow) and short-term rewards will be reaped. Impressive population censuses may follow (forgetting that perhaps no accurate census had before been taken) and the job will appear a success. Funding, or at the very least attention, will be diverted from the conservation effort and the positive immediate trends will be reversed.
This scenario plays out across the world’s most biodverse countries and helps explain why animal populations and poaching statistics have fluctuated in many regions over the past couple of decades. It usually takes a saddening event, such as the pygmy elephant killings, to reinvigorate government interest in a serious long-term issue. However, such issues have systemic causes and without an enduring coordinated strategy the conservation effort will fail for many species, despite the massive efforts made by individuals and charitable organisations.
Conservation efforts should not, of course, be restricted to anti-poaching measures. Checks need to be kept on invasive species that ruin ecosystems, vaccines for diseases must be sought, habitats have to be safeguarded and climatic changes monitored. All these contribute to population fluctuation in the animal kingdom.
Yet it is the trends in poaching statistics that illuminate best the success of conservation movements for it is an issue that the government is almost exclusively responsible for. The fact that the army is now patrolling South Africa’s Kruger National Park to halt poaching is alarming. It may testify to a renewed conservation drive but it is also testament to recent failures.
Of course one has to concede that there are significant human challenges occupying the minds of many developing countries’ governments. Nevertheless, these so often are indirectly linked to the conservation effort; overcrowding, lack of education, impoverishment. Such phenomena contribute to poaching and a lack of sensitivity towards the animal kingdom. Conservation should therefore be thought of as a social issue. Without a long-term strategy, such as many states have tried to implement for poverty eradication, fluctuations in the effectiveness of the conservation effort will continue and the general trend in animal populations will remain forbidding.