The War on Elephants

Hike for Elephants April 8 - October 16, 2016

    The only country in the world completely surrounded by another country is Lesotho, strategically located for anyone who loves wildlife [ELEPHANTS?].  This was my second time in Africa, this time for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.  One of my fondest memories toward the end of my tour was a five week visit from my mother.  We traveled throughout South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.  On one particular day while we were camping in Ethosha in northern Namibia I joined my mother as she gazed at an enormous elephant with long tusks as he drank peacefully at a water hole separated from us by an almost unnoticed rock mote.  My mother was captivated and so was I.  It seemed that elephants were everywhere as we watched them move stealthily across the landscape.  I could not have imagined at the time that in twenty years I would attend the International Law and Wildlife Well-Being: Moving from Theory to Action Conference in Washington, DC and hear that elephants face extinction.  

    This is my story about taking action.  In 2016 I thru-hiked the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine as a fundraiser for elephant conservation.  It is an account of the people, the challenges, and the cause to raise awareness of the elephant crisis.  Readers get a snapshot view of the behind the scenes at why laws, and nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund, fail elephants, the poaching epidemic, and lastly a call to action - what we can do before it’s too late.


    I unzipped my tent fly, fumbled for the light on my cell phone, and crept cautiously outside to find rocks to anchor each corner of the tent.  I thought my tent, flapping wildly, would either collapse around me or take off with the wind and rain.  Now I understood why Mt. Washington is infamous for erratic weather*. The howling winds and pounding rain were nothing like the calm sunset and mild temperature the evening before when I crawled into my tent hoping for a long night sleep to ease away the aches from the climb that day.  Jolted  awake I listened for any stirring in the tent not far from me occupied by my hiking partner, Swiss Miss, but I heard nothing but wind.  

*  Mount Washington holds the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of the Earth: 231 miles per hour, recorded April 12, 1934.


    The day before started out uneventful.  That morning Swiss Miss and I planned our day.  We would either meet at Mitzpah Spring, the closest shelter or if we had time before the sun descended, push on a few more miles to Lake of the Clouds Hut closer to Mt. Washington summit.  

    As usual I tried to hurry my pace to keep up with Swiss Miss.  And, as usual it was impossible.   I’m sure being 35 years younger and a veteran alp hiker had something to do with it.  Swiss Miss was her for another one of her adventures, thru-hiking the A.T.  She had two goals.  One, to learn english and prove her teacher wrong.  Swiss Miss told me she was dyslexic and the teacher told her she could never learn another language because of that.  The other goal, was to change her lifestyle from that of architect model maker to something unknown at the time.  She was motivated by an aha moment on the Geneva metro when she realized the sad looking passengers were victims of a system she no longer wanted to be part of.  Swiss Miss was close to her grandmother who guessed that she was off on another adventure when she said goodbye.  In her twenties, Swiss Miss left traveled the silk road to China, and recently she sailed around Patagonia.  Before arriving at Springer Mountain in Georgia in 2016 to begin thru-hiking she was sailing off the coast of Brazil. 

    Our paths quite literally began to overlap in the Shenandoah National Park and we hiked together on and off from Pennsylvania to Maine.  Occasionally when we took a zero (a day to rest in a town) or nero Swiss Miss would update me on former roommate in Switzerland who was hiking the PCT.  This roommate, “a warrior” according to Swiss Miss wanted to hike  the A.T. but Swiss Miss said it would keep her from learning english to hike with another french speaker.         

    I arrived alone at Mitspah Hut to find this message  anchored by a stone on the trail:  

    Hi Iron Butterfly!  I left here at 01:30 for get Lakes of the Clouds Hut              take care.  Swiss Miss 09/22/16.

The elephant drawing was Swiss Miss saying:  Think of the elephants.  Keep going.  

    Lake of the Clouds Hut closed two day before we arrived.  The season is shorter her because of the proximity to Mt. Washington and the high probability for erratic and extreme weather.  The hut has a dungeon, built after hikers died trying to reach the summit and were trapped due to storms, that is open year round. 

    The Hut staff gone, and the windows boarded, Swiss Miss and I set up our tents.  I didn’t feel the slightest disappointment that I couldn’t access the inside of the hut.  The mild and sunny day was transitioning to a balmy evening with orange and red colors encasing the setting sun.  The only smell in the air was my slightly charred pasta neglected by my efforts to check on the sunset from behind the hut and enjoy the hikers who danced as they watched.     

    Pasta was my dinner of choice while hiking.  Every 40 or so miles I would collect a resupply package at local hostel or post office within hitchhiking distance of the trail.  My pace would quicken as I got closer to this destination in anticipation of the tasty vegan treats, trail mix, chocolate, power bars, and  staples of pasta and oatmeal.  Before leaving Georgia in April 2016 I recruited friends and family to mail packages every 40 miles.  

     Just as the sun vanished over the horizon on the left side of Mt. Washington I ate my pasta then crawled into the tent where I anticipated a good nights sleep to heal an achy body.  I could hear the faint footsteps of hikers as the retired around the corner of the hut to the dungeon for a nights rest.  I remember one hiker from France hiking with his dog who decided to continue hiking over the summit and I was only mildly concerned because of the late hour.        

    Sometime during the night everything changed.  Jolted awake by the winds I thought of the three hikers who left at sunset to cross the summit.  How were they?  I knew there was no where to stay until Madison Hut.  Sometime after securing my tent with rocks I heard Jon, aka “Sota”:

    Jon:  Are you okay in there?      I can help you pack up.  We’ll make room     in the dungeon.  I’ll to check on Swiss Miss.

    Together we grabbed and packed and headed for the dungeon.  I could barely see Jon as I tried to maintain my upright posture following him as my glasses fogged in the pounding cold rain.  Inside the dungeon, I tried to find a place to sit.  There were two bunk beds in L-shape formation with floor space for about five people to sit with legs outstretched.  I climbed up top and waited.  

    Impossible to lie down much less sleep, the young hikers played music, listened to podcasts and told jokes.  One young hiker joked he wound need to get his flip flops resoled.  Jon played a Moth Hour podcast about a young African American women who had suck bad luck dating men she went to an astrologer to get her chakras realigned.  The story ended when she told the audience was in a ten-year relationship and now married, to a woman.              About that time Jon who had stepped outside to check is cell phone announced:

     The weather and it’s going to get worse but according to the weather             report we have a 3-hour window to leave and make it over the summit     to Madison.  Who’s in?

    Others:  A chorus of let’s go including Swiss Miss:  I go.   

    At that point I started to be really scared imagining myself alone in the dungeon for god knows how long.  I had to say something.

    I think it’s dangerous.  We can’t see and I don’t think we should take                 this risk.  It’s too risky!

    Luckily the statement from a young woman hiking with three others saved the day and changed the mood in the room when she avowed:  

     My grandmother made me promise not to do anything foolish.



       I was learning to swing a pulaski near the North Carolina border when a trail crew member announced Time for lunch.  My friend Susan invited me to go with her for a volunteer week working on the Appalachian Trail in southwestern Virginia.  This was my first introduction to tools I never heard of and people who hiked the entire 2200-mile A. T.   We were assigned duties and everyone pitched in to help with cooking after a long day’s labor.  Sitting around the camp I listened as people told tales of their thru-hike.  

    After we arrive at Konnarock and are assigned to a crew we help load the food to last five days and prepare our lunch for the next day before heading out to the camp site.  While the trail work was crazy hard what stuck with me after this crew experience was an image of hiking from Georgia to Maine in six months.  The idea of thru-hiking was new to me and intriguing and one that I let fester for several years before taking the plunge in 2016.


    REI offers free classes, one called Thru-hiking the A. T.   I attended every class at every store in the DC area during 2015 and the beginning of 2016.  What I learned: 

    *  what guidebook to use:  The A. T.  Guide by David “AWOL” Miller

    *  experimenting with equipment by hiking the 41-mile Maryland                 section* 

    *  using Guthook** an app with updated hiking info

    *  how to resupply from home and where to received packages

*If it is within the same calendar year it is considered kosher to skip this section and still claim thru-hiker status.  I used this experience to try out my cooking skills using a canister stove and my ability to carry a 30-pound load. 

**  Guthook publishes an app that can be downloaded by section of the A. T.   It doesn’t require cell service to use and is valuable for updated advice on water shortages along the trail.  For me, it was great to calculate how many miles until the next shelter.


    Friday was Skype Day for Cat, Joan, Beth and me as we planned the hike.  Cat and Joan researched vegan food companies that met the musts of hiking;  light, non perishable, nutritious, vegan.  Beth googled organizations  dedicated to elephant conservation.   This is what we found and who we supported:  

    *  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya

    *  The International Anti-Poaching Foundation based in Zimbabwe

    *  Conservation Lower Zambezi in Zambia

    *  The Black Mambas in South Africa

    After setting up a fundraising site using YouCaring I sent emails to everyone I knew to rise funds.  I attended the third UN World Wildlife Day on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2016, a month before leaving for Springer Mountain.  This year's main theme is "The future of wildlife is in our hands," with a sub-theme of "The future of elephants is in our hands”.   


    As a keystone species* elephants are also considered the gardeners of the forest.     According to National Geographic a keystone species is one that helps define an entire ecosystem.  Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.  I thought about my life in Lesotho walking around dongas (eroded ravines) and what Lesotho must have been like years before they killed all their elephants. 

    Mana Pools located along the Zambezi River affords visitors the unique experience of going on walking safaris and I did this every chance I got.  Our guide took on paths through thick brush that he said were created by elephants.  He pointed out young acacia trees that sprung form seeds dispersed by elephants.  Our guide told us some plants have evolved so their seeds only germinate when passed through the elephant’s digestive.  

We watched wart hogs drink water collected in elephant foot prints.  Our guide told us in the dry season elephants use their trunks and tusks to dig for water sources making it available to other species.  

    *Most contemporary ethologists view the elephant as one of the world's most         intelligent animals. With a mass of just over 11 lbs, an elephant's brain has more         mass than that of any other land animal, and although the largest whales have body masses twenty times those of a typical elephant, a whale's brain is barely twice the mass of an elephant's brain. In addition, elephants have a total of 300 billion neurons. Elephant brains are similar to humans' in terms of general connectivity and areas. The elephant cortex has as many neurons as a human brain, suggesting convergent evolution.  Elephants manifest a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and communication. Further, evidence suggests elephants may understand pointing: the ability to nonverbally communicate an object by extending a finger, or equivalent. It is thought they are equal with cetaceans and primates in this regard. Due to such claims of high intelligence and due to strong family ties of elephants, some researchers argue it is morally wrong for humans to cull them. Aristotle described the elephant as "the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind."


    *Three species exist:  two in Africa, the slightly smaller Forest Elephant and the Savannah Elephant, and a third in Asia where there are three subspecies:  Indian, Sri Lankan, and Sumatran.  While not a separate species, but definitely special, the desert elephant lives in northwest Namibia and in the Sabel desert of Mali.  They have longer legs, larger feet and smaller body mass to adapt to roaming long distances in harsh arid environments.


    The Asian elephant is a different species from the savannah and forest elephants in Africa.  For one thing only the males have tusks.  Unlike the African species, the Asian elephant is smaller with smaller ears.  I remember when I traveled to Sri Lanka in the 1970s one of the first images of my visit from was an elephant using her trunk to move heavy logs.  Asian elephants are misused in tourism for rides outside of temples and transported to zoos worldwide.  Their populations continue to plummet and are down 50% since the start of the 1900.  Their current range is now 15% of the original area.



    It was safe to hitchhike along the road from Mombasa to Nairobi in the 70s and I left my ride to visit a safari lodge in Tsavo.  While visiting Tsavo* I listened to rangers talk about the illegal slaughter of their elephants.  I remember thinking this has to stop.  It can’t go on.   

     I learned in 2016 when researching organizations that the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust named for David Sheldrick who was administrator of Tsavo in the 70s during my visit.  


    The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a disaster.  The founders good intentions have been corrupted.  In the 1960s the Union of Concerned Scientists began talks over worries about declining species worldwide and these talks eventually led to the trade agreement we know today as CITES which is tasked with regulating species by determining a species level of endangerment.  Species are placed on one of three appendices and for elephants this proved to be a nightmare. 

    African elephants are the only species in the world that are split-listed under CITES.  What this means is some African elephants are protected and are placed on Appendix 1 of CITES and others, those in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana receive lesser protection and are placed on Appendix 2. 

    Split-listing came into existence at the CITES meeting in 1999 when some southern African countries wanted to sell their stockpiled ivory and parties to the agreement voted to allow this.  During the 1990s the elephant populations actually began to recover after decades of dramatic decline.  Following the CITES meeting in 1998 elephant populations of southern Africa (Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia) were down-listed and moved to Appendix 2 where they receive lesser protection.  This allowed for the legal sale of stockpiled ivory from Botswana and South Africa to Japan and China.  The consequences were dire for elephants.  It was also the precursor of the perfect storm today and led to the poaching crisis ever since.    

    Why is this a perfect storm you may ask?  Several factors occurred at the turn of the century fueling the ivory trade:    

        *the rise of the internet making it easy to sell ivory

        *the ease of bribing poor rangers and corrupt government                         officials in African nations with elephant populations

        *the rise of the middle class in China that wanted the perceived                     status symbol of ivory

        *the inability to discern legally sourced ivory from poached ivory

        *the rise in criminal cartels that used ivory to fund terrorism                     because ivory is worth more than gold on the black market and punishments even if caught are lax.   

    According to the WSJ,  today Mombasa is the intersection of supply, demand and corruption fueling the ivory trade and a major battleground in the rush to save Africa’s elephant population.  Stretched along the Indian Ocean coast, East Africa’s biggest port has emerged as the world’s major transit point for ivory.  As the African elephant population falls to historic lows, tusks are exiting Mombasa in record numbers—secreted in containers of dried fish, buried in chili powder or wedged inside vats of shea butter.  The ivory trade, propelled by surging demand from Asia’s swelling middle class, is enriching African poachers, Chinese gangsters and corrupt officials. Two of the biggest ivory seizures in Asia this year originated in Mombasa, but Kenyan authorities haven’t seized any ivory there for almost 18 months. 


The Wildlife Section at DOJ where I worked for a year as a paralegal specialist prosecutes CITES violations.         

        The African elephant was first listed by Ghana in Appendix III in 1976. The following year, at the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP1), all African elephants were moved to Appendix II. 

    Asian elephants have a very different history.  They have been listed on Appendix I since CITES became law in July 1975.

    In 1990, after nearly a decade during which African elephant populations dropped by almost 50%, all African elephants were moved to Appendix I.  Many news articles and other sources refer to this as a “global ban” or “international moratorium” on ivory trade.  Some countries with range elephants, i.e., South Africa, did not support the total ban and opted for a “reservation.”  However, because of the restriction on trading South African could not find a market for their stockpiled ivory.  The price of ivory on world markets dropped 65%.

    After the Appendix-I listing was instituted some elephant populations began to recover and were subsequently transferred to Appendix II.  This created the dilemma we face today:  a split listing.


*Each party adopts its own domestic laws to implement CITES at the national level.  For example, the US regulates CITES through the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service.   The two arms of the FWS are the Wildlife Permit Office ("WPO") and the Office of the Scientific Authority ("OSA"). The WPO acts as the CITES Management Authority, while the OSA acts as the Scientific Authority. Although CITES is legally binding on the parties who signed the agreement it does not take the place of national laws.  CITES provides a framework which must be respected by each party, each party must adopt their own domestic laws to implement CITES at the national level.  Here lies one of the problems.  Too often domestic laws are non-existent or lax.  In 2002 50% of the parties lacked one or more of the four major CITES requirements:

    — Designation of a Management and Scientific Authority

    — Laws prohibiting trade in violation of CITIES,

    — Penalties, and 

    — Laws providing for the confiscation of specimens.  

CITES is administered through the United Nations Environment Program.  A Secretariat is located in Geneva and oversees the implementation.  Each country that implements CITES is referred to as a Party and designates a Management and Scientific Authority to implement the agreement.  The Management Authority ensures that listed species are traded legally through a system that issues permits and the Scientific Authority determines whether trade in a particular species could be detrimental to its survival in the wild.

    The backbone of CITES is the permit system that facilitates international cooperation in conservation and trade monitoring. Permits are issued only if a country’s Management and Scientific Authorities (in the case of the United States, the US Fish & Wildlife Service) determine that trade is legal and does not threaten the species’ survival in the wild. The use of standardized permit forms, allows inspection officials at ports of export and import to quickly verify that CITES specimens are properly documented.

    Appendix I: Includes species threatened with extinction and provides the greatest level of protection, including restrictions on commercial trade.  Any species listed in Appendix I of CITES is effectively banned from international commercial trade.

    Appendix II: Includes species that although currently not threatened with extinction, may become extinct without trade controls. It includes species that resemble other listed species and need to be regulated in order to effectively control the trade in those other listed species. Most CITES species are listed in Appendix II.  

    Appendix III: Includes species for which a range country has asked other Parties to help in controlling international trade.

Relevance to elephants