SO many refugee elephants are seeking sanctuary from poachers in Botswana that the environment is now under threat.

Despite efforts to save the threatened African elephant the rate at which they are being slaughtered to fuel the illegal ivory trade is causing great concern. The first continent-wide aerial census has revealed that numbers have been reduced by as much as one third over the last 10 years with around 144,000 killed.

If this rate continues nearly half of Africa’s remaining 415,000 elephants will be gone in less than a decade.

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“Since 2007, Africa has lost 144,000 elephants, primarily due to the ivory poaching crisis,” said principal investigator Dr Mike Chase, from Elephants Without Borders.

Carcass after carcass was spotted in some countries with Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania hit particularly hard. In parts of the former there were eight dead elephants found for every 10 that were alive. As there are only 148 left in Cameroon, conservationists believe they will soon be locally extinct.

“There were days on the Great Elephant Census when I thought the only good I was doing was recording the disappearance of one of the most remarkable animals that walks this planet, but we have to be hopeful,” said Chase.

IS THERE NO PROTECTION?

BOTSWANA, where trophy hunting is banned, does have elephants in abundance. It seems that while the pachyderms used to roam at will across borders they are intelligent enough to realise this is no longer safe.

“Elephants clearly have a cognitive ability to understand where they are threatened and where they are safe and in this case they are seeking refuge and sanctuary in Botswana where they are well protected,” added Chase.

The number of refugee elephants in Botswana is becoming a problem. “We are housing a lot of refugee elephants in Botswana,” said Otisitswe Broza Tiroyamodimo, director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. “Currently the number of elephants is so high per square kilometre that it puts a lot of pressure on the environment.”

It’s clear, however, that even here they are not safe as there is gruesome evidence that poachers have managed to penetrate the border. Carcasses have been found recently near the border with Namibia, a discovery that has shocked Tiroyamodimo.

“The cosy pretence that Botswana’s elephants are well protected has been completely blown out of the water,” he said after 21 fresh carcasses were discovered.

“It’s the last thing I expected to see and it becomes a lot more personal when it happens in your home country.”

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

THE problem is that although soldiers guard the border, the distances are huge and the financial rewards for the poachers are high.

A kilo of ivory is worth as much as £880 in China where demand is still great despite an international outcry against the continuing slaughter.

The illegal ivory trade recently claimed one of Kenya’s remaining great tusker elephants. Small comfort for the conservationists who found the remains of 50-year-old Satao II was that his giant tuskers were still intact.

He had been killed with a poisoned arrow and it is probable the poachers were disturbed before they could deface him. His tusks weighed a total of 223 pounds and his death is a devastating loss for the Tsavo Conservation Area which covers over 16,000 square miles.

Satao II’s death comes just three years after that of his namesake Satao, another 50-year-old tusker and another huge loss for the park as tuskers play a vital role in elephant society according to conservationists.

“They have been parts of social networks for five or six decades and have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals learn from,” said Vicki Fishlock of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

CAN ANYTHING BE DONE?

EFFORTS are being made to save the African elephant before it is too late. The sale of new ivory was banned worldwide back in 1989 but this has not stopped the illegal trade.

Some countries are bringing in bans on all ivory related sales. This includes the US, one of the world’s largest markets for ivory which, until last year, had only banned commercial imports. Now, as a result of an order from former President Barack Obama who called wildlife trafficking an “international crisis”, nearly all ivory related business has been outlawed.

China, another huge market for ivory, says it will follow likewise by the end of this year and Hong Kong, the world’s biggest ivory market, has agreed to end domestic trade by 2021.

Meanwhile a Dutch businessman based in Ecuador is playing a part in elephant conservation by selling seeds. It may sound odd but these seeds are not ordinary as they are from the elephant plant or Phytelephas. It is a species of palm tree that produces off-white coloured seeds called tagua that, once dried, become so hard they are known as vegetable ivory. They can grow up to nine centimetres (3.5 inches) in length and can be polished and carved just like ivory.

IS IT SUCCESSFUL?

ONNO Heerma van Voss says there has been a rise in demand as a result of the crackdown on the elephant ivory trade.

Already selling to 70 countries including Singapore and Japan, he hopes sales will rise still further when China stops its domestic ivory trade. He sells £160,000 worth of tagua each year after buying it from farmers and then drying and slicing the seeds so they are ready to be crafted.

France is so far his biggest market with the sliced tagua retailing for £24 per kilo. The raw seeds are £4.80 per kilo.

Using them as an ivory substitute actually began back in the 19th century when demand for ivory was so great it could not be met. Tagua was used for chess pieces, buttons and the decorative handles on canes but later fell into obscurity.

Heerma van Voss said he had never even heard of it when he first went to Ecuador in 2000 but, once he discovered it, he saw its potential.

“I always joke that I am a forced ecologist, but I actually really like this product,” he said.