In a powerful and poignant edition of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel called Blood Ivory to be aired on Tuesday November 24th, has correspondent David Scott not only investigating the scourge of elephant poaching by terrorists and criminal syndicates who are feeding the lucrative illegal ivory trade but exposing a sport that claims to be the species’ best hope for survival.
From the Congo to Kenya to Tanzania and Zimbabwe, Scott delves into the world of elephant poaching but also finds that amidst the carnage are trophy hunters from the USA who insist that the money they pay to shoot elephants in Africa is critical to fighting poachers.
The Poaching Pandemic
The program is hard-hitting and bloody. This is not one of those visually esthetic wildlife documentaries about the idyllic lives of elephants in the wild. It is violently graphic and doubtlessly carries a visual warning.
Dozens of elephant carcasses, the result of poacher’s bullets from automatic rifles, are splashed across the screen. So too are the bodies of rangers and poachers caught in the gun battles deep in the African jungles and savannas. In one scene, a groaning ranger’s blood-spurting stump of an arm is filmed after his hand gets sheered off in the tail rotor of a helicopter that transported him and his men to a drop zone.
The segment reveals the price paid to protect the continent’s remaining herds of elephants, or in the case of poachers, a do-or-die effort get their hands on the lucrative ivory, which fetches up to US $80,000 per tusk on the black market.
The poachers are often part of heavily armed central African terrorist organization like Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army and the Janjaweed militias in South Sudan who use ivory to fund their heinous operations. They out-man and out-gun those trying to protect elephants. The result: Carnage for both rangers and elephants.
Poachers have decimated Africa’s elephant populations. Some experts say the figure is over 100,000 in the past few years. Dan Ashe, Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), says the poaching in recent years “is unprecedented and in the near future there may not be any wild elephants left.”
But poachers aren’t the only people killing elephants. Trophy hunters, mainly from the United States, are also taking part in the carnage.
The Hunting Paradox
“Nothing satisfies me more in life than hunting elephants,” John Jackson, a trophy hunter from Louisiana told Scott at his home draped wall-to-ceiling with the heads and body parts of dozens of animals from polar bears to lions. Jackson has shot 15 elephants in a variety of African countries and says he has no regrets or feelings of guilt. Explaining his reasoning for hunting elephants the trophy hunter seriously believes that the elephants he shot “brought it upon themselves” because they are “bullies and kill people”, never mind, as Scott quips in response, “that he is the one stalking them through the bush armed with a gun and a license to kill”.
The violence meted out by trophy hunters shooting their quarry is no less graphic than the poachers’. In the segment, elephant’s brains are shown being blasted out by high caliber weapons. In some cases the poor beasts don’t die immediately and can be heard screaming in pain while the hunter continues to take pot shots. There are also scenes of hunters torturing their victims and laughing before finally killing them. At one point, hunters come across a sleeping elephant and in the spirit of a ‘fair chase’ it is startled awake and a second later shot before it’s on its feet.
Yet trophy hunters insist their gruesome enjoyment is the only way elephants will be saved. Jackson says the money he pays to hunt an elephant – sometimes up to US $ 60,000 – is used for conservation. “There is nobody in the world who contributes more to saving elephants than hunters,” says Jackson. “If you stop the hunters, you stop the revenue for anti-poaching efforts.”
But Dan Ashe disagrees. “Hunting elephants,” he says, “needs to stop,” especially in countries like Tanzania and Zimbabwe where poaching is at its worst.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposed a ban on imported elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, a country that has lost about 25,000 elephants, and Tanzania, that’s seen a decline of 60% of its elephant population. The ban is likely to be extended indefinitely. “We need to let the species rebound.” Ashe explains on camera.
But the decline of a species from hunting goes deeper than simply allowing a species to rebound by refraining from legal hunts. Teresa Hagerman, a former co-owner of a large African hunting outfitter, told Scott that hunters often adopt illegal and unscrupulous practices and routinely killed more than the allowed quota – actions that could be pushing teetering populations of African elephants over the edge. She believes that trophy hunters have illegally killed thousands of elephants over the years.
Hagerman says that many hunting outfitters allow clients to kill extra elephants because they can double, triple and sometimes quadruple their money depending on how many extra elephants are killed, even though they have violated the official government quota of permits.
But bribing government officials in charge of permits with cash and prostitutes, says Hagerman, was a constant and easy exercise. At one time she handed over US $30,000 to an official to issue additional permits illegally.
Blood Ivory also highlights claims that in countries like Zimbabwe, the spoils of trophy hunting are not funding conservation but instead financing the notoriously violent dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. This is a not a new accusation. A 2014 report from Born Free, a wildlife conservation nonprofit organization, and C4ADS, a conflict and security analysis firm, have fingered the Mugabe regime as the major benefactors of hunting elephants.
The Zimbabwean president has gone on record as saying that “elephants need to pay for their room and board with their ivory.” They do. But, says Hagerman, Mugabe won’t share sport-hunting revenue with his people, or give it to conservation. “He could care less about conservation,” she says.
This very timely and important HBO program highlights the point that trophy hunting ultimately sends mixed messages to the public. On the one hand, the world is trying desperately to stop poachers from killing endangered wildlife but on the other trophy hunters are allowed to skim even more off populations on the brink of collapse. This paradox is doing little to contribute to saving species.
Wildlife biologist, Malini Pittet, believes that the world has been “brainwashed about the role of trophy hunting as a conservation tool.” Trophy hunting is an activity that fuels corruption and encourages the unfair redistribution of wealth, but, most importantly, as this program reveals, it contributes actively to the rapid decline of elephants.