Can we imagine a world without the African elephant, or the African rhino? And will it matter? Sadly, heartbreakingly, it's not a stretch to conclude that these ancient animals, their numbers now precarious, will one day vanish from the wild forever, one more incomprehensible example of our rapacious and predatory view of the environment and all its creatures. The tragedy is that these creatures — unlike, say, the polar bear — could be saved if we had but the will to do so. Or will our silence deafen?
Beginning with the elephant: According to Jeffrey Gettleman, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter, reminiscent of the 1980s when almost half of the continent's elephants were killed. Now, once again, elephants — in the tens of thousands — are being poached. And for one mercenary reason: ivory.
These extraordinary creatures, so strange and magnificent, are the largest land animals in the world. They are clannish, deeply caring of their young, communicative, a species about which we still know so little. And they are gradually vanishing, relentlessly taken from us, Africa's expansive grasslands now killing fields for both young and old.
More than 70 percent of the ivory harvested is meant for China, where a growing middle class fuels demand and where tusks sell for at least $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing, the epicenter of the world market.
Ivory, like oil or conflict diamonds, is viewed with a cold detachment, a commodity (will we soon reach peak ivory?) to be sold on a burgeoning market until the last tusk has been hacked from the last elephant.
The purveyors of illegal ivory stretch across a continuum, from corrupt government officials to those in uniforms (army and park rangers), as well as armed rebels such as the Lord's Resistance Army, the Shabab, and the janjaweed who trade ivory for arms.
So lucrative is ivory smuggling that sophisticated crime syndicates are now involved, controlling what has become a worldwide network.
In 2011, some 39 tons of ivory, the equivalent of 4,000 elephants, was seized, intended for commercial ships bound for the East.
In early January of this year, Hong Kong agents seized 779 elephant tusks weighing 2,900 pounds, arriving from Kenya and valued at $1.4 million. Last October, 1,209 tusks, weighing 3.9 tons and worth $3.5 million, were interdicted, arriving from Kenya and Tanzania.
Regarding the African rhinoceros: According to Gettleman, Africa is home to the majority of the world's last surviving 28,000 rhinos. They are the most improbable of all creatures — prehistoric, seemingly armor-plated, with two horns growing out of a short snout, impervious to harm, except for man.
In 2007, 12 Afican rhinos were killed; in 2012, the number was 630. Over the last 50 years their numbers have been reduced by 90 percent.
The reason: like ivory, the rhino horn is coveted by increasingly affluent Asians for its ornamental value as well as being a purported cure or palliative for a panoply of ailments. A horn on today's market sells for $30,000 a pound, more than crack cocaine, and smugglers are desperate to acquire them, to the point of breaking into museums in Europe and stealing displayed horns.
Because of the staggering amounts of money involved in the illegal horn trade — there has been a ban since 1970 — crime syndicates have taken control, trafficking in low-risk, high-gain horns rather than drugs. For those who get caught, the result is usually a fine.
As with ivory, rebel groups, government officials, veterinarians, Chinese scientists, helicopter pilots and antique dealers collude, resulting in a stunning rise in poaching, ironically in places such as South Africa's vast Kruger National Park, an ostensible game reserve.
Like the African elephant, the African rhino is incrementally vanishing, its extinction inevitable unless the world community intervenes.
While we may be able to rationalize a world without the African elephant or rhino, their extinction represents another jagged, awful line from which, once crossed, there will be no retreat. It will be as final as the haunting image of the last ravaged African elephant or rhino, collapsed on a stretching savanna, bleeding to death, their tusks or horns gone, these animals lost to us forever.
A footnote: Our children's children can still stand and peer across a wide moat at these massive African creatures. But in truth they will not be wild, for wildness is state of being that can never be learned in a zoo. A zoo animal, standing stoically, gazing ahead or pacing back and forth, is no longer wild, but a source of curiosity and entertainment, in this, its last refuge.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.