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© Brian Snelson

Visiting a zoo can be a wondrous experience, in that it gives us the opportunity to observe, in close quarters, a creature that we’d otherwise never lay eyes on. Sometimes, however, we get so caught up in “watching,” that we don’t bother to go any further. We stare and observe for several minutes before moving onto the next creature, and it never occurs to us that the majority of the animals we’re staring at may be under scrutiny or threatened in some way.

Such is the case with the elephant. As we watch them feast and throw dirt over themselves to stay cool, we marvel at their size and power, but for many poachers, it’s not their size that makes them attractive, but their tusks – and the multi-million dollar ivory industry that they continue to fund today.

The U.S. government destroys its stockpiles of confiscated ivory in New York City's Times Square, 2015. (Photo: Kelsey Williams / FWS)

The U.S. government destroys its stockpiles of confiscated ivory in New York City’s Times Square, 2015. (Photo: Kelsey Williams / FWS)

Elephants have been under serious threat since the 1970s, and according to the World Wildlife Federation, they are on the verge of disappearing from Selous – one of Africa’s largest and most important wildlife reserves – within the next six years. Located in Tanzania, the national park has lost an average of 2,500 elephants each year for the last 40 years. At present, the park’s population stands at a mere 15,000.

“The population is at an historic low,” says the WWF, “and urgent measures are required to protect the remaining animals and return the population to a stable and sustainable size. If this trend continues, elephants could vanish from Selous by early 2022.”

Elephant and child, Addo Elephant Park, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Brian Snelson / Flickr)

Elephant and child, Addo Elephant Park, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Brian Snelson / Flickr)

Investigative journalists Bryan Christy and Aiden Hartley explored the illegal ivory trade in 2012. According to their findings, the number of elephants wandering the African continent during the 1800s stood at a healthy 26 million. Today, that number has shrunk to less than one million.

In 1989, a global ban on ivory sales was enforced, thereby granting the species some much-needed time for recovery, but since the late ‘90s, these sales have made a comeback. Up to 25,000 elephants were killed in 2012 alone, following the sanctioning of ivory sales by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2008.

Aside from poaching, the elephant community is also being threatened by large scale mining operations. Up to 54 mining concessions have been granted to those seeking to drill oil and gas in Selous National Park. These concessions bring harm not only to elephants, but to the lions, the leopards, the wild buffalo and the 400 bird species that also call Selous home.

“Extractive industries cause environmental degradation, including the destruction of wildlife habitats in the immediate areas around exploration sites,” says the WWF. “In 2012, the boundary of the Selous World Heritage site was modified to enable the construction of a large scale uranium mine in the southern area of the reserve. Once operational, the mine is expected to produce about 60 million tons of poisonous radioactive waste.”

Poachers target elephants for their ivory tusks, which are shipped to markets in Asia and fashioned into jewelry, statues and fine art. (Photo credit: Billy Dodson / African Wildlife Foundation)

Poachers target elephants for their ivory tusks, which are shipped to markets in Asia and fashioned into jewelry, statues and fine art. (Photo credit: Billy Dodson / African Wildlife Foundation)

The damage is also slated to reduce tourism and contaminate nearby water sources, making them unusable to local communities. In turn, further mining and poaching could bear huge monetary consequences for Tanzania, and the WWF is hoping to put pressure on the shoulders of the country’s officials.

“The Tanzanian government should place equal value on the needs of current and future generations,” they explained, “and favor activities that drive long-term sustainable development and permanent job creation, such as carefully managed tourism, over those that prioritize profit in short-term such as oil, gas and mineral extraction.”

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