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How Not to Catch Ebola: A Wise Traveler’s Guide

26 Oct West Africa 2014
West Africa 2014

The sign above warns people in West Africa: Attention Ebola!,  Don’t  Touch Anyone,  Don’t Manipulate Objects, The Animals You’ll Find Dead in the Forest

Last week a dear friend and neighbor called to ask about her chances of contracting the Ebola virus if she was traveling back from West Africa on an airplane. She had no intention of taking a flight to anywhere in Africa but it bothered her that she had no idea what to do if she ever encountered this situation while traveling abroad. She had heard me talk about living with the threat of Ebola while traveling through East and Central Africa and felt that the media in the United States had not told  the American public the entire truth. After I answered her questions and told her what steps she could take to keep herself safe she felt somewhat better and  more in control of her life. Then she begged me to write this post in order to educate anyone else who felt as she did. So this one is for you Diane, I truly hope the information I’ve included in this post helps save lives one day. I have meticulously researched and referenced all of the factual information presented in the post and matched it to that cited by the World Health Organization as well as the Center for Disease Control. I have also included direct  links to each of these web pages so my followers can check out this information for themselves.

So what have I learned about Ebola during my summers in East and Central Africa and what do I do to keep myself safe? First, out of all the diseases one can catch in East Africa, like AIDS, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Blackwater Fever, Tuberculosis and hundreds of parasitic illnesses – it’s Ebola that terrifies my African friends and colleagues the most. “ Three Days,” ( the time they believe it takes the virus to kill them) they whisper after I ask about Ebola then either make the sign of the cross over themselves repeatedly or shake their heads back and forth in absolute dread. When travelers meet on back roads throughout the bush, its news about Ebola they ask for first and the name, itself has the power to turn a cheerful, laughing Ugandan into a silent, nervous wreck. But knowledge is power and so there are certain things you can do to protect yourself against bringing this virus into your body and infecting you with the disease.

Ebola has been classified as a virus and as such there are a few things you need to remember about this virus in particular when traveling that can keep you safe. A person can only spread Ebola if they are in the active symptoms stage. That means they are either running a high fever, vomiting, experiencing diarrhea, severe headaches, muscle pain, weakness, abdominal pain, or unexplained bleeding around or from any opening in their body. And they don’t have to have all of these symptoms – one is enough. But these symptoms also describe other illnesses such as influenza so a blood sample must be taken and examined by a laboratory to confirm whether it’s actually Ebola or not. This makes the disease very difficult to detect and confirm especially in rural districts where lab reports are not readily available and by the time competent medical staffers have been called in an entire village could be infected. Doctors have determined that there is a definite incubation period between 2 to 21 days (time between becoming infected and the actual onset of the physical symptoms) but it is not the same length of time in all patients so this has caused a lot of confusion in the past. How would I even suspect I had the disease if I didn’t show any symptoms until 21 days later? By then most people who had come in contact with Ebola would feel they were free from the disease. Plane travel from Africa to the United States usually takes two separate flights and between twelve to sixteen hours depending on the European airport selected for the second flight. Hypothetically I could travel through the first flight symptom-free but develop stage one symptoms like a high fever during the second flight. That means I could become contagious while in-flight and have no idea what’s happening to me. And now you’re sitting next to me. So what can you do to protect yourself?

A person demonstrating active stage one symptoms of Ebola can transmit the virus through all of his/her bodily fluids like sweat, mucus, tears, saliva, urine, feces, and blood. You infect yourself when you come in contact with my Ebola-rich body fluids and bring them into you own body through any open cut/wound or bring your contaminated fingers to your eyes, nose, or mouth. So I advise when on an airplane where there is reason to suspect Ebola that you wear a surgical mask and either sunglasses that thoroughly surround/cover your eyes or clear glasses that do the same thing. You may not look like the sexiest person in Coach or Business Class but you’ll go a long way in protecting yourself from this debilitating disease. Before you hit the airport remember to examine your body closely especially any exposed areas like hands and feet making sure that all cuts, no matter how tiny- even hangnails have been thoroughly covered up by Band-Aids or adhesive strips. Make sure to bring extra ones with you and if you have a deep wound on your hand I would wear a pair of gloves while traveling. Make sure to pack these things in a carry-on bag when leaving the US for any country in Africa- you’ll never know when you’ll need them. Remember, “ an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I heard a newsman on television say that you can’t catch the Ebola virus from a sneeze. Wrong, wrong, inexcusably wrong!!! Technically you can’t catch the virus from airborne particles released through your nose during a sneeze but when people sneeze they usually release some saliva from their mouths as well. Think about your last hearty sneeze- I know I do and I bet you do too. That means that saliva from an infected person’s mouth could be sprayed out onto your hands, shoulder, head, lap, or even food depending on how close he/she was when the sneeze occurred. If a person with active symptoms sneezes on you, spits on you, vomits on you, bleeds on you, or you come in contact with his/her urine or feces you’d better have any wounds covered up and your eyes, nose, and mouth covered too or you’re at risk for infecting yourself with the virus.

Now this virus can live for hours outside its host’s body so carry disposable wipes soaked in bleach with you and use them to wipe down the tray in front of you, both metal side arms; then give the cloth seat a quick swipe too before sitting down. Wipe down any earphones and touch screens before using them as well. I always take a large African scarf with me and wrap myself up in it during the flight. No airplane pillows or blankets for me. Using the bathroom can be especially dangerous if you have bleeding hemorrhoids or any other open wounds in that area of your body. Make sure to take your bleach wipes with you and make a thorough swipe of the toilet seat before sitting down. Wash your hands well with plenty of soap and make sure to wipe your hands with fresh wipes before and after using the toilette and sink. When eating your meal watch what the people on either side of you are doing. If for some reason they sneeze on your food leave it alone!!! It’s better to go hungry than sicken yourself with Ebola. And watch where you put your hands. Do not put them anywhere near your eyes, nose, or mouth without wiping them off with bleach wipes first. Once you arrive home take all clothes off immediately and throw them in the washing machine. If you have worn a suit or “dry clean only” garments place them on a hanger and put them outside in the sunlight for a day or two. Other things that can kill the virus once it’s outside of its host- hand soap, detergent, hand sanitizers, heat, and alcohol- the kind you drink as well as rubbing alcohol and hydrogen- peroxide. Remember people who tend to sick Ebola patients can be infected by handling bedding, clothes, cups, dishes, or utensils so they must take the proper precautions as they minister to them. Following these steps may make you feel embarrassed at first- even look like you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but who cares? Would you rather be pretty or dead? Adults traveling with children will have a more difficult time enforcing many of these protocols but remember they work and have been designed to save you and your family members from a terribly painful illness you might not survive.

Stage two of the disease according to one friend, “is a journey into hell and back”. The infected person suffers from extreme bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, agonizing rashes, and gradually his/her liver as well as the kidneys slowly shut down. There’s lots of bleeding from every orifice in the body and much more pain. The very old and the very young succumb first as well as anyone in poor health at the onset of the disease. Many East Africans will tell you that anyone who catches Ebola dies but WHO maintains that the average fatality rate is more like 50 %. It all depends on the general health of the person at the onset of the disease. And according to the CDC, those people who do manage to survive develop personal antibodies that remain in their blood stream and protect them from further infection from Ebola for up to 10 years; although scientists are not sure if these survivors are immune to the four other species of Ebola or mutations of each strain as well. There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola at the moment although blood transfusions and a serum called Z-Mapp was used on the doctors who became infected with Ebola in West Africa but  is still in the experimental stage.

And now the most crucial fact in preventing epidemics like the one that occurred in West Africa. People can fully recover from the Ebola virus and still remain infectious (that means they can still infect others) as long as their blood and/or other body fluids including semen and breast milk contain the Ebola virus. Men who have recovered from the disease and demonstrate no symptoms whatsoever can still transmit the virus to others in their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery. Doctors who have been treating male patients in West Africa who survived Ebola are advising them to abstain from all forms of sex for 30 days and to wear condoms after that. According to Mother Jones, in one 2000 study a woman who recovered from Ebola still had the virus in her breast milk weeks after she made a full recovery and her infant eventually died from the disease. It is not clear if she transmitted the virus to her infant and more research needs to be conducted before scientists can establish a direct cause –effect relationship between breast milk and the transmission of the virus.

As of October 24, 2014 five countries located in West Africa have had outbreaks of Ebola Hemorrhagic Virus in the past several months: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. Of these, Nigeria and Senegal have been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) as “Ebola –Free” with no new reported cases of this disease for six weeks in a row. This was the largest and most complex outbreak of Ebola ever recorded with more deaths than all other outbreaks combined. To show you how contagious this virus can be according to the CDC the first case in West Africa was confirmed in March of 2014. It started in Guinea then was spread by land to Sierra Leone, after that one traveler was responsible for spreading the virus by airplane to Liberia, then one traveler spread it to Nigeria by land, and one traveler spread it to Senegal by land. It seems that the world’s attention was focused exclusively on West Africa when in fact there had also been an outbreak of Ebola in Central Africa, in Lokolia, south of Equateur Province in the northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as of September, 2014 with a confirmed tally of 68 cases of Ebola and 41 deaths. But Ebola outbreaks have occurred in the past in the DRC, Uganda, South Sudan, and Gabon.

According to historical data on Ebola supplied by the Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2014) the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced 7 outbreaks of Ebola in the last 38 years- more than any other country in the world and the Congo Basin has been identified by scientists as the source of several major pandemics. As far back as 1976 the first recorded cases of Ebola came out of the Congo Basin in the DRC, the second largest tropical rain forest in the world. What’s more, it is now believed that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged from the same rain forest sometime in the late 1920’s after that virus crossed from chimpanzee into human blood streams.

This has also made the doctors serving the populace of the DRC some of the most knowledgeable “ Ebola Doctors” in the world. And one of the very best is the virologist and professor Dr. Jean- Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who heads the Institut National de Recherche Biomedicale, at The University of Kinshasa in the DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa. It was Dr. Tamfum who identified the Ebola virus 38 years ago. According to Dr. Tamfum, “Ebola is the most dangerous virus in the world at this time classified as a ‘level four’ virus and there are more just like it out there.”

Five species of the virus have been identified so far: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston, and Tai Forest. And each of these has the ability to mutate. The most recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been attributed to a mutation of the Zaire species which according to the CDC is the most deadly strain.

According to Jonna Mazet, global director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) “Predict Program,” a five year project charged with identifying viruses before they become a threat and building a global database to store this information, “most of the global epidemics in the world originated in these same forest ecosystems. The three areas in the world currently classified as “Virus Hot Spots,” the Amazon Basin in South America, the Congo Basin in Central Africa, and Southeast Asia- all three have the heat, the water, and the tree cover to act as pathogen incubators. According to the latest version of the Thorndike- Barnhart Dictionary- a pathogen is “any infectious agent that can produce illness in its host and can appear in the form of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms.” The medical community at large knows by now that viruses mutate easily enough inside their host, some can live outside of their host for hours on end, and all are not easily treated. Mazet goes on to say,” In the last five years we have detected over 800 viruses globally and 540 of these viruses have never been seen before. Many could be just as deadly as Ebola.” This means that a good 68% of these new viruses have the potential to be as destructive to humans and animals as Ebola and AIDS have been. Scientists have also determined that 60% of the emerging diseases that infect humans worldwide are “crossovers” that originally came from animals, especially wild ones.

An estimated 270 species of animals and 40 million people call the Congo Basin home. In a country identified by the United Nations Human Development Index as 186 out of a total of 187 countries (only Niger was given a lower score) it has the poorest quality of life in the entire world. Locals around the Basin eke out a living from the forest each day or literally die of starvation. As I discussed before in my blog on Ebola after the Ugandan outbreak of 2012 while traveling through the infected area of Uganda near the DRC/ Uganda border, primates such as monkeys and apes can catch Ebola just like humans who are also primates. Because Gorillas share 95% of their genetic code with humans it is extremely easy for the virus to cross over between the two causing prolonged outbreaks of the disease. Contrary to Americans’ preferences for red meat, the Congolese will hunt and eat wildlife in any form they find it. Animals such as bats, monkeys, chimpanzees, forest antelope, and porcupines are caught and sold in outdoor markets as fresh or cooked meat and eaten by a community that truly enjoys this cuisine. Unfortunately, these are the same animals that have been identified as the culprits responsible for spreading the Ebola virus in the Congo Basin especially into hunters who handle the infected blood, bodily fluids, and feces of the wounded or dead animals before they’re cooked. The CDC currently believes that it is a species of fruit bat living in the Congo Basin that’s primarily responsible for holding the Ebola virus in its blood stream between outbreaks.

Jonna Mazet warns that the Congo Basin is home to millions of viruses and many of them could be far more virulent than Ebola or HIV. As the rain forest in the Congo Basin is being destroyed to accommodate a growing population of Congolese citizens they in turn are coming in contact with new and deadlier microorganisms like never before and who knows what the repercussions will be for the global community at large? And for those who doubt me! In 2009 a new virus was discovered in Mangala, a small village deep within the Congo Basin’s rain forest. Three people had been stricken with a mysterious fever that suddenly spiked and began to vomit up blood. Two of the patients died within three days of demonstrating active symptoms and the third survived the disease going on to develop preventive antibodies in his blood stream. It was first thought that they had contracted the Zaire species of Ebola virus but then it was confirmed through laboratory tests that the villagers had become infected by a totally new virus. It was eventually named the Bas- Congo Virus and there have been no reported cases of the Bas- Congo Virus since. Virologists finally determined that it had been spread by insects.

Voyons ce que demain nous, mes amis!

Kat Nickerson      Kingston, RI   USA



East African Leopard: Victim or Victor?

28 Feb

As I investigate the steady decline of the “ Big Five” game animals throughout East, South, and Central Africa: Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Buffalo, and Leopard only the leopard has developed the ability to adapt to the urban sprawl and the human population growth occurring throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Even the Cape Buffalo herds that once roamed freely over the African savannahs are now confined to wildlife preserves because it was found that they contaminate domestic cattle with diseases like Anthrax, Foot & Mouth Disease, Rabies, and the dreaded Rinderpest and that is only a partial list of maladies. And although the total subspecies of African Leopard, Panthera pardus, pardus has decreased due to civil war, poaching, land conversion, and irate farmers it has not suffered the critical decline in numbers that the lion, elephant, or rhinoceros have.

In 2008 The International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN) classified the African Leopard as “Near Threatened” on their Red List of Threatened Species rather than “Endangered” like that of the lion, elephant, and rhinoceros but warned that it could soon be changed to “Vulnerable”. The African leopard was declared officially extinct on Zanzibar, an island belonging to the country of Tanzania in 1996 where there have been no confirmed sightings of any leopards since. And while the African leopard is not considered endangered in East Africa, there are sections of West Africa where the leopard population is in critical decline as well as in Asia, where subspecies such as the Snow Leopard approach extinction.

What makes the African leopard so able to survive when other species have not? Well first of all, it’s a loner with no need for an extended family and does not seek out the company of other leopards except to mate. Although females stay with their cubs from birth to around eighteen months of age and sometimes the fathers remain nearby to protect the infant cubs from strange males for the most part, leopards are not social animals. The female leopard gives birth to two to three cubs at a time then stays with them until the cubs are large and strong enough to accompany her on the hunt. Infant cubs are born with their eyes closed preventing them from moving beyond the den. The mother leopard typically keeps them hidden for the first eight weeks of life changing her den’s location often so that the cubs scent is not detected by lions or hyenas on the prowl. Under ideal conditions the mother suckles her cubs for at least three months introducing them to freshly-killed meat around six/seven weeks of age. She will remain with her cubs up to 1 ½ years but then she leaves them and resumes her previous nomadic lifestyle. As attentive as she had been as their mother the female leopard will never look for her children again

Secondly, the leopard is an intelligent animal forced to depend on its wits. The leopard or “chui” in Kiswahili is called the “ghost” for many reasons. For the most part this medium- sized cat occupies the same territory as lions. It cannot expect to confront these larger predators and win so has learned to outsmart them by demonstrating a higher level of stealth and guile. It spends most of its time hidden from view especially during the day stretched out across tree limbs high up in the air. A Maasai hunter once told me that leopards have the souls of ancient warriors inside them and still remember how it feels to be human. Maybe he’s onto something there and that’s why they’ve acclimated so well to the presence of humans beings on their land? It is whispered around the fire at night that by the time you see a leopard it already has you in its grasp and that is so true. It is as silent and capable a hunter as ever lived.

I have been on safari many times and have yet to see a leopard in the wild and am not alone. It is the only “savannah mammal” I have not seen. During my most current safari to Murchison Falls, Uganda we drove for a full seven hours looking for leopards and spotted none but sometime later that evening on his way to dinner my safari guide saw a large adult male rummaging through the garbage heap behind the lodge. I began to suspect that this mysterious creature might have adjusted far better to the presence of tourists than they had to him. As I asked around I heard stories about leopards roaming the area near the building at night so much so that guests of the lodge were warned away from entering the woods surrounding the lodge after sunset. Contrary to popular belief, leopards hunt during the day as well as at night but seem to do their best hunting and cover the most territory during the hours between dusk and dawn.

The African leopard might have a reclusive nature but it also has a curious one. Rather than fearing man and avoiding civilization it seems to be quite willing to exploit  human settlements to meet its own needs. According to wildlife biologists it has easily made adjustments in its previous routines as man’s pushed further and further into its natural habitat changing its hunting patterns and acclimating to new food sources. According to the latest research on the movements of East and Central African leopards there has been a significant increase in the number of sightings near villages and cities lately. Official sightings of leopards have been reported in the urban areas of India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Nigeria, China, and Saudi Arabia as well. In a study conducted by the World Wildlife Federation in Pakistan, (2005 -2007), 97 out of a total of 125 leopard sightings – were in and around human settlements. Traditionally leopards do not actively hunt human beings for food but a starving leopard will devour any source of fresh meat and leopards have had no reservations attacking humans when threatened in the past. During 2004, 14 people in Mumbai, India were killed as a result of what were officially identified as “leopard” attacks.

Leopards are not picky eaters and are more than willing to select their food from among a wide range of prey. They are not even reluctant to scavenge off the carcasses of dead animals when provided with the opportunity to do so. According to wildlife biologists 92 different prey species have been found in the stomach contents of deceased African leopards including insects, birds, rodents, large and small antelopes, and baby herd mammals. Infrequently, adult males have been known to hunt adult wildebeest or zebra and although they are much smaller than the average adult lion they have great strength for their size and can haul victims weighing three times their size up into the trees. This willingness to select food from such a diverse range of living things helps ensure they will survive no matter the extent of the changes in the local fauna.

African leopards can call almost anywhere on the African continent home easily acclimating to most types of terrain from high- altitude mountainous regions, forests (woody and tropical) grasslands, savannahs, to hot semi-arid deserts. In 2005 a study conducted by Ray et al. estimated that the African leopard has disappeared from at least 36.7% of its previous historical regions with the worse losses occurring across the Sahel belt (from Mauritania to the Sudan), Nigeria, and South Africa but its populations have not dramatically declined in other regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Darwin’s discussions on “Natural Selection” he explained that “in the punctuated equilibrium model of environmental and biological change, the factor determining survival is often not superiority over another in competition but the ability to survive dramatic changes in environmental conditions” If so, my money is on the African leopard.

And then as if fated to support my point of view on the adaptability of the African leopard, an Indian leopard showed up on the streets of Meerut, India two days ago where it thoroughly terrorized the residents there. By all accounts this was no frightened animal although it seemed a lost one entering a hospital, apartment building, and then of all places, a movie theatre in its attempt to escape. I am including a link to the original article. Well worth reading and the photos are spectacular especially the one showing the leopard breaking through a wall into the street.

Why the animal appeared in a crowded district during the day is unsettling and gives some indication as to how comfortable the creature had become around human beings. And its willingness to enter buildings filled with the scent of human beings is even more unnerving. According to statements from bystanders in the crowd it appeared confused but never panicked. Who knows how many nights it prowled the streets of Meerut feeding on garbage, small dogs, and large rats as it developed a “feel” for the area? And according to the article this is only the latest in a series of visits by leopards to other urban areas in India.

In a world where so many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction by the relentless demands of the human race; it seems the leopard has decided to fight back.

There is also an alarming video on YouTube uploaded by NDTY- type in ” Leopard filmed snatching dog from Mumbai home”

Kat Nickerson                                                                                                                                                                                           Kingston, Rhode Island

The Demise of the African Elephant: On the Road to Extinction

14 Dec
by Kat Nickerson 2009

by Kat Nickerson 2009

This blog is about the African elephant and its perilous future in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have been on several safaris in Kenya in the past few years where I followed wild herds of African elephants and each journey holds a special place in my heart- beyond memorable. My two best adventures occurred in Tsavo National Park and Amboseli National Park both located in Kenya where I was allowed to take hours of film and photographs of various herds roaming the savannahs there. I have posted two favorite pictures of a bull elephant and the rest of the herd  taken on the Maasia Mara.

by K Nickerson

by K Nickerson

There are two species of elephant: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. The African elephant has also been dived into two sub-species: the savannah and the forest elephant. Savannah elephants live out on the flat, grass-covered plains such as the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania. Savannah elephants are most numerous and are found in 37 countries south of the Sahara Desert while the forest elephant populates the dense rain forests of West and Central Africa. According to a current study from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign recently published in the Journal of PLos Biology. After studying samples of the elephants’ DNA, Alfred Rocca, lead scientist for the group, maintains that these two sub-species are vastly different from one another- as different as the Asian elephant is to the Wooly Mammoth.

No matter its origin, the elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. Female elephants live together with their babies and young children in herds with the oldest and wisest matriarch (female leader) in charge. Male elephants are allowed to live in the herd until they become adolescents (12-15 years) then are made to leave to roam their home ranges alone. The bulls will visit the herd from time to time in order to mate with the females and may stay with the herd for a while but eventually they return to their solitary way of life. I have seen male elephants meet at a water hole in Tsavo in the evening where they shuffle from side to side welcoming one another with their trucks raised as they emit a series of low rumbling sounds. They detect these vibrations through their feet, skin, and trunks but as soon as they’re done drinking off they go- all by themselves again. I have also seen groups of three to four bulls roaming the preserve together during the day but eventually they separate and each one goes his own way. The bull elephant’s ability to exist alone in some of the most perilous places on Earth gives you some idea just how powerful an adult male elephant must be. No other animal- even lions can take down a bull elephant in the prime of his life and rarely try unless they are desperately hungry. Even then, it would be the lions that would fare the worst in the ensuing battle. A bull elephant can accurately be described as the king of his domain.

Elephant herds move around using regular migration patterns that were established many years ago usually built around access to water holes and availability of food. These routes have been traveled the same way for hundreds of years. It is the matriarch who recalls this route best and leads her family through the yearly migration path. Elephants may remain at one site for a time but eventually move on traveling through their home range year after year in a very predictable course. Home ranges can vary; they may be as small as 24 square miles or as large as 6,000 square miles. Elephants do not recognize country boundaries so many herds cross national borders in their attempt to complete these migration treks. Their long treks between countries has made it very difficult for scientists to get an accurate read on the total number of savannah elephants and identifying the entire population of forest elephants has been a much more difficult venture . Herds of forest elephants are well hidden by the dense underbrush of the tropical rainforests and covered by a dense canopy of trees.

There are three things that are responsible for the African elephant’s move towards complete extinction: 1.) an ever increasing human population, 2.) the harmful effects of climate change, and 3.) criminal poaching ventures.

Encroachment by Humans
Amazingly, a recent Population Reference Bureau Report released in September, 2013 predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa will record the world’s largest population growth from 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion people between 2013 and 2050. By the year 2050 the current population in Africa will have more than doubled by 1.3 billion people making Sub-Saharan Africa the largest growing region in the world. If these predictions are correct Sub-Saharan Africa will overtake the continent of Asia with the highest rate of population growth. In the past, Sub-Saharan Africa’s numbers had not increased significantly due to the high number of HIV/AIDS deaths as well as high infant mortality rates. But improvements in access to health care and medicine around the area has been credited with creating a larger population that is living longer than ever before. According to the report, women in sub-Saharan Africa still average 5.2 children during their lifetime, compared to 1.6 in Europe and 1.9 in North America.

As the human population increases throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, people will need more land upon which to build their houses and establish their gardens and fields. That means that the elephants will get less and less of the same area to roam. The home range of the African elephant has been reduced by 20% over the last decade due to human expansion. In Rwanda, a country equivalent in size to the state of Maryland, the elephant population of 100 animals is expected to decrease over the next 20 years, while the human population of 7.5 million is estimated to more than double during the same time period.

And if the predictions concerning Sub-Saharan Africa prove true, a record number of human beings will continue to take land away from the wild elephant herds and in the not so distant future wild elephants will lose all access to their traditional migration paths. Even now this dilemma has pitted farmer against elephant in an all-out war as the herds continue to follow their annual migration routines despite changes in the land. Elephants have been credited with stampeding over houses and eating entire harvests leaving the subsistence farmers in their wake homeless and hungry as a result. In response, farmers have turned on the elephant by poisoning local water holes and maiming elephant herds that come too close to their villages and fields. Elephants have nasty tempers and continue to kill human beings every year. In 2010 an American woman living in Kenya was trampled to death along with her baby while on a hiking tour just outside of Nairobi.

In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a wildlife toolkit to help African farmer’s protect their crops from wildlife looking to eat or destroy their crops. They were encouraged to do things like shoot the elephants with Ping-Pong balls, make and throw dung bricks, as well as create beehive fences to keep marauding elephants from destroying their property. Seems elephants are afraid of bees and even the sight of their hives is enough to keep them at bay. According to the FAO the annual cost of elephant raids to crops ranges from $60 dollars US to a farmer in Uganda to $510 dollars US to one living in Cameroon.

At best this is a feeble attempt by the UN to stem a monumental problem. Eventually there will just be too many people occupying the land and no room for the herds of wild elephants to roam. And no amount of Ping-Pong balls will solve the real problem! Penning wild elephants together is not the solution either. Results of wildlife studies have concluded that wild African elephants do not adjust well to changes in their migration routines. Females are directly influenced by habitat conditions and population densities so birth rates can severely decrease in high density or nutritionally stressed herds. Wild herds were not meant to live in close proximity to one another and can become anxious and unsettled even hostile when forced to live too close to other groups.

Climate Change
In a study commissioned by the World Bank, researchers concluded that from a global perspective the world is headed for “average temperatures 4 degrees (Celsius) warmer than pre-industrial times by the end of this very century.” Food security will be the overarching challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa, with additional dangers from droughts, flooding, and drastic shifts in rainfall.

The report also stipulated that climate change will not affect all countries of the world equally. Some of these destructive effects will be experienced by the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa which in turn will affect their food supplies, individual economies, and coastal regions, while limiting arable land and fresh water. These nations will be less able to adjust to these hardships producing an increasingly unstable environment, which in turn could promote wars between struggling countries and peoples.

The 1.5°C-2°C warming in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to bring about increased droughts and higher aridity causing farmers to lose between 40 to 80% of the fields where maize, millet, and sorghum were traditionally grown. This is expected to take place during the 2030s and 2040s. By 2080 annual precipitation should decrease by about 30% in southern Africa, while East Africa will see more rainfall. Entire ecosystems will change and many types of grasslands will turn into woodland savannas instead decreasing access to pastoral ranges needed by livestock and savannah elephants. What will become of the wild African elephant when their home ranges flood in the east but dry up in the south and their current ecosystems drastically change?

According to Dr. Richard Leakey, world renowned wildlife expert, “climate change is a bigger threat to elephants, tigers, and the rhinoceroses than poaching. In pre-industrial times, animals threatened by these changes could simply have migrated, but human development on their lands means that this option has largely disappeared.”

As with many crises in Central and East Africa one is never too sure just who the good guys are and nowhere does this seem more apparent than when applied to the current poaching situation that has escalated to outrageous proportions in Sub-Saharan Africa. I would like to tell you that the poaching situation as it currently exists is all the work of terrorists and criminals- and to some extent this is true; but when the entire history of the regulation of ivory is examined it makes for a far more complicated and confusing story than that.

First of all the African elephant has come close to extinction before and the ivory trade has steadily grown since the 1940s. In the 1960s, raw ivory cost between $3 and $10 per pound but by 1975, the price had risen to $50 and by 1987, it was $125 per pound. By this decade there was also a newer manufacturing procedure in place in the Orient that allowed for the mass production of ivory carvings for the first time. This, in turn, led to a rising demand in Asia and an increase in poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa. From 1979 to 1987, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, (in that order,) were the primary buyers of raw ivory.

The herd population increased during the first few decades of the twentieth century; especially during World War I and II when the world powers were too busy killing one other to hunt elephants. But then the wars ended  and after a few more peaceful decades during which these same African countries were engaged in fighting for their own independence from European control the herds began to be overhunted again mostly by rich, white hunters in search of safari trophies. While African elephants have been hunted for several centuries, the mass killing of elephant herds as a business started in the 1970s. By the end of the 1970’s it was obvious that something had to be done so the first world ban on elephant ivory was put in place and it seemed a fairly successful ruling until a resurgence in poaching occurred in the 1980’s.

By all estimates, the elephant population in Sub-Saharan Africa decreased from about 1.2 million to 600,000 animals in the 1980’s. Kenya alone lost almost all of its wild elephant herds to poachers during this decade. By 1986, approximately 75% of all raw ivory for sale on the international market had originated from illegal sources –amounting to the tusks of 89,000 elephants. Furthermore, sanctions imposed on smugglers were not nearly severe enough to stop the poaching from occurring. For example, a truck owner was fined only the equivalent of $3,000 for transporting 2 tons of illegal ivory to an East African port.

Threatened with extinction again in the 1980’s, elephant ivory was banned from international trade by the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but there were also two sanctioned sales of ivory stocks to China and Japan in 1999 and again in 2007. And sadly in November 2002, delegates from both the United Nations and the United States attending the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Chile agreed to ease the 13 year old global ban on ivory by allowing one-time exemptions to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to sell off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of ivory culled from elephants who had died of natural causes in their national parks although the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe were denied their request to do the same. The UN delegation heartily endorsed this agreement while the country of Kenya begged them to reconsider their position. Many delegates were horrified by the lift on the ban warning that the glut of ivory on the far-eastern market would rekindle international poaching endeavors once again. Teresa Telecky, a delegate representing the US Humane Society at that time aptly predicted that the ‘legal sales of ivory would revive the previously dormant black market for ivory.” And she was right.

Carl Safina, an environmental writer, blamed the recent rebound in elephant poaching after years of progress in the 1990s and early 2000s on the UN and US delegations as well. After passing an ivory ban in 1989, CITES delegates led by the UN and US delegations voted to relax the rules again  in 2008, allowing previously stockpiled ivory to be sold in China. This provided a legitimate cover for illegal ivory smugglers, and according to Safina, “up to 90 % of ivory sold in China now comes from newly- killed elephants.”

At the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand, Joyce Poole co-director of Elephant Voices stated that Sub-Saharan Africa had sustained “its worst year yet.  More than 7% of all its wild elephants were killed in 2013 alone- and that translates to 40, 000 elephants. And now anyone with a decent rifle can join in the hunt. Terrorist groups like al- Shaaab working in Kenya out of Somalia, The Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, the Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as the Janjaweed of the Darfur region in Western Sudan have all taken to poaching ivory and opened new trade routes in order to finance their operations. And if that were not bad enough, the military in certain African countries has turned to poaching in order to subsidize personal endeavors as well.

In August, 2013, M23 rebels accused government soldiers from the DR Congo of selling guns to elephant poachers. My sources tell me it was common knowledge in the area at that time. And the best one, in September 2012, soldiers serving in the Ugandan Army (Ugandan Peoples Defense Force) who had been assigned to protect the eastern section of the DR Congo were accused of killing 22 elephants in the Garamba National Park using a helicopter to gain access to the herd. It was determined that 15 of the 22 animals had been “expertly” shot in the head from up above. The Ugandan soldiers denied these allegations but the park rangers were convinced it was the Ugandan army stating that “the UPDF operated the only helicopter that flew over the park.”

And in the End….

When the tusk of one African elephant can earn an African poacher a year’s salary desperate men resort to killing elephants in order to feed their families. So what will it take to save the elephant? Whether the African elephant herds can survive in spite of smaller home ranges, climate change, and poachers remains to be seen but this will only happen if the world comes together in an organized way to create a viable plan to save them. It is true that terrorists now threaten the herds but even if they disappeared tomorrow the wild African elephant would still be well on its way to extinction. There must be an international plan in place before things like human encroachment and climate change even begin to  jeopardize the elephants’  existence. If not, how will we ever explain to our children that we stood by and watched as the mighty African elephant disappeared from the face of the Earth? It’s good to be back.

Kat Nickerson                         Kingston, RI                                                    December 11, 2013