Yao Ming and the elephant massacre

Recent coverage of the African poaching crisis strikes at supply and demand

After weeks of the media mostly failing to realize why basketball star Yao Ming’s trip to Kenya was fairly important endangered species news, the terrifying surge in elephant poaching in Africa is finally getting the treatment it deserves.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published a 3,100-word, front-page article by Jeffrey Gettleman that spotlighted the startling involvement of African militiamen and soldiers in the slaughter of thousands of elephants of the last few years. Gettleman likened the ivory they harvest to blood diamonds:

Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.

But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.

Some of the background in Gettleman’s article has been reported before. At the end of December, many US news outlets carried an Associated Press article reporting that, judging by large seizures of elephant tusks that year, 2011 was “the worst on record since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 3,000 elephants were killed by poachers…”

And three months before that, in a 1,400-word article for The Wall Street Journal (published in the Asian edition of the paper, but online only in the States), Alexandra Wexler explained that the perhaps unprecedented massacre is due mostly to demand in Asia. In particular, China’s demand for luxury goods has soared with rising incomes, and the price of ivory has skyrocketed as a result.

But Gettleman’s exposé, replete with gripping scenes of gunfights in the bush, was the first to unmask the militarization of poaching (netting him an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition). The day after the his article ran in the Times, CNN—which has done a relatively good job of following the largely uncovered story—ran a long web piece about the ivory trade’s “severe toll on Africa’s elephants,” but when it came to culprits, the segment didn’t get much deeper than familiar statements about “ineffective law enforcement, official corruption, porous borders and a rapidly expanding population seeking sustenance…”

Gettleman, by comparison, talked to Sudanese ivory dealers, escaped kidnapping victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (a brutal militia in central Africa led by the infamous Joseph Kony), park rangers, former soldiers, Somali elders, government officials, conservation groups, and others in order to implicate the specific rebel and military groups involved in the mass killing.

Before Gettlemen’s article, the best that the media could muster in recent weeks was star-struck coverage of Yao Ming’s trip to Kenya in August to document the elephant and rhino-poaching crisis there. There was more to the story than Ming’s “Journey to Africa” blog and photos of him standing over butchered elephant carcasses and playing with a baby elephant, but most in the media missed it.

The exception was The Christian Science Monitor, whose East Africa correspondent, Mike Pflanz, actually spent some time with Ming and filed an article from Nairobi explaining the point of his work. The former Houston Rockets center is a spokesman and ambassador for the anti-smuggling group, WildAid, and, according to Pflanz:

The crisis, the like of which has not been seen since the 1980s, has conservationists thinking again about how to stop the slaughter.

And they have come up with some clever new approaches, based on the simple mathematics of economics: Remove the demand for ivory, and you cut the supply…

That is why Yao, China’s best-known sportsman, who carried his country’s flag into the Bird’s Nest stadium at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is in Kenya, filming a documentary about poaching.

Courageous investigations like Gettleman’s, which expose the root of violent corruption and name names on the supply side, are badly needed. But reporters should also remember the demand side, and resist the impulse to treat efforts like Ming’s as just another celebrity photo-op.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,