December 16th, 2008
02:21 PM ET

Ivory wars: the latest herd count and poaching report

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle. Planet In Peril: Battle Lines will re-air on Thursday, Dec. 25


Darren Potgieter
Wildlife Conservation Society

I took-off at mid-afternoon on Friday for a long patrol flight. I had been away in the capital for the week to have maintenance done on our little Cessna. Now I needed to see what had passed while I was gone.

I wanted to check all the elephant hotspots; to follow up on the herds and make sure there had been no poaching. While I was away the guards had been making patrols and recorded no incidence of poaching, but I was still uneasy about what we would find.

First we buzzed around the large open flooded plain in the north east of the park– the area was full of large buffalo herds that were there to profit from the last of the wet season’s greenery. We also found two good elephant herds, of around 60 and 80 individuals.

The elephants were feeding in the open, and this was a good sign– they were relaxed and unthreatened. We continued our search and found life everywhere. The park is teeming with thousands of buffalo, huge flocks of crowned cranes, pelicans, many different antelope species, giraffe and predators. It is easy to be lulled away by the beauty.

We’d been flying for more than an hour when my attention was drawn away in the distance to a lone white pelican. He was sitting at the very top of a tree, in stark contrast to the dark green foliage and was oddly out of place being as far as he was from water. My curiosity directed the plane for a closer look.

As we neared I noticed that his post was shared by a horde of vultures and just as the meaning of this registered in my brain, David somberly responded; “Damn, carcass on my side”.

There were two and they were fresh, not more than five days old– their faces hacked off. One of the two was a
juvenile, confirmed the following day to be about five years old. His tusks would have been tiny, a few hundred grams worth– but still more valuable to some than the life of this little elephant. I was angry– it can’t be a coincidence that this happened as soon as the plane left for its maintenance in Ndjamena. We found another two carcasses before touching down in the fading gleam of dusk. Zakouma! This place equally full of life and death....

We’ve lost at least 11 elephants since the middle of October, and of course in the present conditions with tall grass and dense canopy cover we are not seeing all of them. Eleven in less than two months. It would be more if it weren’t for the guards and our plane, but it is clear they won’t stop trying until they’ve mined all the ivory from Zakouma.

It is full moon now and it is a good time to poach. It is bright enough to find and shoot the elephants, the cool of the night will make the arduous task of hacking out the ivory easier, and of course the rest of the world should be sound asleep. I have bought cheap lanterns to use as runway lights and will fly at night now.

Filed under: Africa • Environmental issues • Planet in Peril • T1
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Jim R. Indianapolis, Indiana USA

    Ultimately, consumers of unsustainable and illegally traded ivory must be educated to understand that their actions leave bloody, rotting carcasses in the depths of the forests and plains. Illegal trade provides precious little benefit to the usually poor poacher, who may kill a six-ton elephant with 30-kilogram tusks worth thousands of dollars on the international market for the "salary" of a pair of shorts and a packet of cigarettes from an ivory-trading middleman.......very sad

    December 17, 2008 at 1:37 pm |
  2. Angela Bridgewater


    Thank you and thanks to CNN for working to make this program possible!! I live in the United States, but my heart is breaking for the Elephants in Africa being killed for their tusks. I don't understand man's lust for Ivory. It is just a material that is not necessary for humans to own.
    Please, please try to continue these programs to change people's views on owning Ivory? It is not worth killing a beautiful Elephant for
    a carving.

    It is murder to wipe out a family of animals who are so family oriented, who feel and weep for their dead. How horrible for a baby to see its mother or father killed and its face hacked off. For those elephants that do live, seeing a murdered and mutilated family member will forever traumatize them. I would like to help these elephants and would welcome anyway to do so!! Thank you again, so much!!!!!

    December 17, 2008 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Don, WA

    Must be like dreaming and being awake seeing the large herds crossing the flooded plains with water shining off their big backs in the sun – I hope I can see that one day – I hope they'll always be there for the generations.
    You believe the poachers know when the plane comes in for maintenance – that is regretable. It is good to know you've bought lanterns to land by on those active full moon nights – keep them burning as long as you can – as long as it takes.

    December 16, 2008 at 5:33 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Humans are so short sighted – they kill off species without taking into account the good the species does and the impact their absence will have on the environment and on men. If the poachers have their way and all the elephants are hunted to extinction to get their ivory tusks, then what do the poachers do next? Its unfortunate that so many humans can see no further than the end of their nose.

    December 16, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  5. Sharon Kitchen

    Please keep up the good work you do.
    Please be careful.
    Those that kill an animal for ivory may not stop there.

    December 16, 2008 at 3:47 pm |
  6. Cindy

    Thanks for the update! The report by Lisa on the elephants was my favorite one on PIP2 so I am glad that you all updated us on them.

    Sad to hear that you've lost 11 elephants just from October on. That is really a high number! Thanks for y'alls work on keeping them safe and I hope that more can be done to stop these poachers!


    December 16, 2008 at 3:04 pm |