Chinese police officers examine ivory and rhino horn products seized after breaking up a criminal ring in Xuchang city, central China's Henan province,  September 12, 2016. Photo: AFP
Chinese police examine ivory and rhino horn products seized after breaking up a criminal ring in Xuchang in Henan province in Sept 2016. Photo: AFP

It was one of the most momentous events in the battle against poaching: 11 giant pyres of elephant tusks going up in flames in Kenya as the world looked on.

The largest destruction of ivory on record, which took place in April, was the pinnacle of efforts to jolt mankind into stopping the slaughter of wildlife, while sending a powerful message to poachers.

As 2016 ends, awareness of the devastation of poaching is greater than ever. Countries have turned to high-tech warfare — drones, night-goggles and automatic weapons — to stop increasingly well-armed poachers.

“We obviously still have a very long way to go, but the level of political awareness we have reached is remarkable compared to six years ago,” said John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES — or the International Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

On April 30, 2016 Kenya Wildlife Services rangers set fire to illegal stockpiles of elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park. Photo: AFP/Carl de Souza

Poaching was somewhat of a niche concern until around 2010 when the massacre of elephant and rhino began reaching alarming levels and it became clear the problem needed wider attention. High-profile names including Britain’s Prince William were recruited to the cause, while calls grew louder for a total global ban on the ivory trade.

The move is slowly paying off, and 2016 saw hopeful signs that people may no longer be willing to watch as extinction goes unchecked.

It is no coincidence that the demand for ivory has soared along with the rising wealth of Asia, particularly in China. Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have also been hugely lucrative markets for the illegal trade.

In March the Chinese government announced a ban on new ivory imports. And on December 30, the government set a deadline of the end of 2017 to impose a total ban.

Then, in early October, CITES strengthened protection of other threatened species, including sharks, pangolins and gray parrots.

“When you protect the elephant and its habitat, all the species living in this habitat benefit.”

Debates still rage over how best to fight elephant poaching, but conservationists welcomed CITES’ refusal to grant Namibia and Zimbabwe special authorization to sell their ivory stockpiles in order to fund elephant protection. They argued that any legal sale stimulates demand and therefore the illegal trade.

Elephant and rhinoceros are often the poster children for the anti-poaching movement.

“The elephant is a flagship for the wider ecosystem,” said Kelvin Alie of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “When you protect the elephant and its habitat, all the species living in this habitat benefit.”

According to a World Bank study, international donations to combat wildlife trafficking jumped to as much as US$250 million in 2016 from about US$25 million in 2010.

However some argue the future still looks gloomy.

“We should not think that the problem is solved because we have recorded a few successes here and there,” said Mark Gately of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Elephant populations are stable, or even increasing, in South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, parts of Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi or the W-Arli-Pendjari complex extending over Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger.

But elsewhere they are declining rapidly, and sometimes catastrophically.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature the African elephant population has slumped to 415,000, 111,000 fewer than a decade ago. And the killing continues at the dizzying pace of about 30,000 elephants a year.

More expensive than gold, and far more rare. Black rhinos are teetering on the brink of extinction in the wild. Photo: Colin and Sarah Northway/Wikimedia Commons

The rhinoceros fares worse. Black market rhino horn sells for up to US$60,000 per kilogram — more than gold — and in the past eight years alone roughly a quarter of the world population has been killed in South Africa, home to 80% of the remaining animals.

CITES estimates the illegal wildlife trade to be worth US$20 billion a year, making it the fourth biggest illicit activity after guns, drugs and human trafficking.

Some African countries have made the fight against poaching a priority, but others believe there are more important problems on which to spend scarce resources, such as ending conflict, poverty, unemployment or hunger.

“I think it’s unfair just to leave it to African countries to take care of that problem, it’s an international issue … and it applies to thousands of species across the planet,” said Richard Vigne, director of the private Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya.

As an example, with attention fixed on elephant and rhino and gorillas, there was widespread shock as it emerged this month that the humble giraffe had seen numbers plummet by 40 percent and was now also vulnerable to extinction.

You first, old chap: While public attention was focused on the rhino, the collapse in Giraffe numbers slipped under the radar. Photo: Hans Stieglitz/Wikimedia Commons

“The good news is we now know what we have to do, but we have to multiply the scale of our actions,” said Scanlon.

Part of that is the increasing use of technology, intelligence and weaponry as well as coordination with customs and police services, the adoption of laws with heavy penalties for poachers and a growing number of cross-border agreements to halt trafficking.

“We can’t walk around in the bush with a stick, gently asking the poachers to drop their AK-47”

“We need a holistic approach. If we deploy armed rangers on the ground, we also need to reduce the demand for ivory and explain to local communities there is economic interest in protecting wildlife,” primarily through tourism, said Andrew McVey of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Across Africa drones, night-vision equipment, helicopter-borne intervention teams, automatic weapons and special forces trainers are all being brought in to stop the poachers.

“This is a war, this is an unfortunate part of conservation … We can’t walk around in the bush with a stick, gently asking the poachers to drop their AK-47,” said Damien Mander, an Australian ex-soldier who heads the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

“Humans are capable of reacting quickly and strongly if they have been pushed far enough in the corner. I don’t think we are far enough in the corner to spark that reaction.”

— Agence France-Presse