Turning objections into challenges

Daily Brew you can't stain elephant tusksYahoo Canada ran a “Daily Brew” article a few days ago about staining tusks to stop poaching. The expert quoted, Anne Lambert of the Internat’l Conservation Fund of Canada, says, “Darting and applying dye to elephants would involve a huge cost and stress and risk to elephants.”

I agree with this.

Ms Lambert dismisses the idea of staining tusks as thus “impractical to impossible.”

That I disagree with.

painting elephant tusks pink poorly

Wildlife experts say this is how NOT to stain an elephant’s tusks. Yes, I think we’d all agree on that. So, how can we do it? (photo Sayyid Azim AP, w Photoshop’g)

The objection is that you can’t knock out the elephants and paint their tusks.

The challenge then is how to deliver the dye into their system in something they’ll eat or maybe in something off-the-wall like a skin patch (like a nicotine patch) that has been plunked onto the elephant’s flank by flatheaded arrow spread with a bit of 3M’s finest adhesive. Without tranquilizers and with no stress. No impractical and expensive teams of elephant handlers.

dyeing elephant tusks with doum

This might be one way to stain tusks. Tanzanian elephant enjoys a ripe doum fruit. Doums are quite a healthy snack which might well be healthier laced with a bit of indelible dye…

You’ll probably need several doses of dye to stain the tusks fully, and elephants are suspicious eaters, so it’s an ornery problem. Still, doesn’t it seem manageable enough to look into? (Laugh, but Nestles makes pet food. I’d ask them for suggestions – and funding. Or Clairol. You think that they’ve never thought about the market potential of hair dye in a pill?)

If you have suggestions on how to proceed, please comment. If this is a non-starter, tell me why.

Why stain tusks to fight poaching?

I go into this at All We Do for the Elephants . . . Exactly, but let’s take the example of Tanzania. Poaching there has been intractable. 65,000 or 60% of their elephants were killed in 5 years. The government is thought to be complicit in poaching and ivory smuggling. (Officially, the government takes a “Who? Us?” line. To them, the loss of 12,000 elephants in one reserve is “the greatest wildlife mystery ever.”)

Staining tusks might be a very good strategy for such a situation. A putative staining (and re-staining) program would only require the government’s cooperation for limited if intense and hopefully highly publicized periods every few years. This might be more viable than relying on rogue rangers who may actually be doing the poaching or honest rangers who may be constrained from doing their jobs by corrupt superiors in league with poachers.

Last year (2014), for the first time, during such a highly publicized moment of government cooperation,  a Tanzanian elephant survey was done by outside organizations led by the Frankfurt Zoo. They found that Tanzania’s elephant population fell 60% from 110,000 to 45,000 in 5 years. The government did suppress the report for several months, but only, they claimed, because they were so flabbergasted by the results. “We recalculated about 1,000 times because we didn’t believe what we were seeing.”

They finally released the report in June 2015 by which time it could dismissed as old news. Indeed, the government asserted that in the half year since the survey was finished in 2014, poaching had decreased. “The worst is over.” If this is indeed so, it is not clear why. Is it because the government has changed its policies or changed its ways? Or more likely, the previous scale of poaching can’t be sustained with so many fewer elephants?

So, does developing a transdermal dye patch delivered by archer suddenly sound like a constructive use of time and money? If not, the post below has more on Tanzanian poaching and the unabashed and enthusiastic support that two anti-poaching NGOs have given the government since the survey’s release.

Lazaro Nyalandu and 12000 missing elephants

Lazaro Nyalandu, Tanzanian Minister of Tourism and Natural Resources, center, thinks the 12,000 elephants missing from the Ruaha Reserve may have emigrated. Not likely, but it’s a safe bet that their tusks have all left the country.

Back to Ms Lambert, the Canadian wildlife expert. Her conclusion about staining:  “And even if achievable on a small, enclosed population, poaching pressure would just be diverted elsewhere.” The thing is, she is describing what already happens with any anti-poaching strategy (or any crime fighting strategy, for that matter.) Put more guns and – uncompromised – rangers in one area, and the poachers will move elsewhere.

Ms. Lambert must know that poachers will also move elsewhere when all the elephants in an area are dead.

A “small, enclosed population” pretty well describes the decimated herd just before the last of the members are killed off. Maybe saving such populations by making their tusks pink shouldn’t be dismissed so blithely. Hell, such vulnerable, dwindling populations may be the norm one day across Africa as they already are in Central and Western Africa. Probably in Tanzania now, too.

To Ms Lambert, “the idea” of staining tusks “is impractical to impossible on a field-level scale because of the sheer logistics and cost to implement.”

Instead, “the best way to reduce elephant poaching,” the reporter sums up Ms Lambert’s thinking, “is to reduce demand for ivory thanks to public awareness, government crackdowns and greater enforcement.”

I don’t know, but I’ve been told that the “sheer logistics and cost to implement” those all-encompassing solutions did not prevent 100,000 African elephants from being killed in 3 years.

photo of tranquilized elephant in Kenya is by Sayyid Azim for AP. I found the original in an NBC news story from 2005. The Photoshop’g is mine.

The doum eating elephant photo is difficult to source. Google image search gives http://www.segram.com/tag/Selous  This site is an endless collection of images. I apologize to the photographer for the lack of credit. If the fruit has been reddened in Photoshop, it wasn’t by me.

With all the mention of Photoshop, maybe Adobe might kick in some dough for research. “From Reality to PhotoShop to More Elephants.”

Lazaro Nyalandu photo is from his site www.lazaronyalandu.org according to Google. I couldn’t find it there though.


18 thoughts on “Turning objections into challenges

  1. Although I feel this is a great idea… I do not feel introducing dyes into their diet Is safe or responsible. I know when giving my kids candies that are dye free beets are used to color them. And there are also certain kinds of bugs that can be used to dye things. These would be safer alternatives and just as effective in my opinion.. Also beets would be a sweet treat for them and may be able to be grown there in the wild. Just a thought.

  2. Pingback: Is Poaching Our Problem? | Energy and Environmental Policy 2015

  3. Elephants do not eat beets. Beets do not grow there. “They are suspicious eaters” -meaning that they don’t even eat familiar things at times and science doesn’t necessarily know why.
    Beets, as well as the small red beetles that are used for cosmetics and other items, have a strong smell. I doubt that the elephants would willingly eat anything with either of these ingredients.
    Just my 2 cents.

    • As I go into elsewhere on the site, you’ve got to dye the 1/3 of the tusk inside the skull out of range of even Amazon’s fanciest drones. Leave that 1/3 untouched with ivory around $1,000 a pound in Hong Kong, they’ll still be poaching in Africa.

      Drones are starting to be used to help wildlife rangers patrol. Unfortunately, drones can also be useful to poachers. They can’t do the butchering yet, but they certainly can be used to find and kill elephants more stealthily than is done currently.

    • Elephant tusks are a bit different than human teeth. For that matter, they’re different even from the rest of the elephant’s teeth. Explore the site a little more. See what you think. Thanks for visiting.

  4. The Elephants Tusk is similar to teeth and grow constantly through the elephants life. A suitable dye would have to be non toxic and part of the elephants diet while the Tusk is being laid down. It would have to be of a nature and substance that would be incorporated into the molecular structure of the Tusk. The safety and successful compound would require years of testing to prove that it was effective, nontoxic and non carcinogenic to the elephant and would tender the tusk undesirable for the ivory trade. I don’t know if Tetracycline would be incorporated into the developing tusk as it is into Bears and Human teeth. It can be detected and is used in some bear studies via inclusion into food put out for the bears. A major down side would be if such long term usage would develop resistance in pathogens that could impact the elephants.

    • Thanks for commenting. This is a great summary of some of the challenges to staining tusks. For a fuller look at these challenges, see the first post of this blog.

      The true challenge is to figure out how to do this quickly in months or at most a couple of years. To find if this is possible to do quickly, we need to the challenge up to a wide, wide circle of experts and others. The right dye may already be known. We might find that safety and efficacy testing can be fast tracked.

      As I suggest in various posts, the circle might include pet food chemists, cosmetic dentists, histotechnologists or ivory conservators.

      Do you have the expertise to take this on? Can you figure out how to frame the challenge and bring it to the attention of this circle of people? Sure, it’s a quixotic task to be sure, but read a bit about elephant poaching and read up on the conflicts of interest that hamstring our current anti-poaching efforts. I think you’ll find staining tusks is not such a lunatic fringe idea.

      Read about Tanzania in this post and the next one. Read more generally at All We Do For The Elephants . . . Exactly

    • Hi fellas, sorry for jumping in all of a sudden, but I was wondering if carbon black or iodine could do something useful? I know that you can find these as ingredients in toothpaste or latter one as medicine. I’m not an expert and I’m not familiar with potential side effects of a longer use or carcinogenicity so I’m just giving my contribution to the discussion. 😛 Kind regards.

    • Possibly, but they wouldn’t be able to show off that dyed ivory in public because that color would indicate an illegally obtained piece of ivory. Even the most must-have-it consumer isn’t likely to go about displaying such a piece. “Oh, darling, I love that gorgeous bit of poached ivory. Frank won’t let me wear mine because he says I’ll be arrested. I think it’s because he thinks it’ll hurt his chances for promotion.”

      Could poachers add more dye to move the color away from the illegal hue? Again, possibly, but if the hint of illegality gets firmly attached to any dyed ivory, the value of all dyed ivory will drop enough to make poaching it unprofitable. That’s my thinking anyway. Hopefully, we’ll find out one day.

  5. An UPDATE:

    Nothing on staining tusks or on the poaching crisis.

    The comments I get suggest people think staining is a great, if extreme, idea, but I’ve heard of no research yet.

    Meanwhile, poaching seems to be continuing at an unsustainably high level. That is to say, more elephants are dying than being born each year. I believe new borns are about 5% of the population while our poaching has driven up the elephants’ mortality rate to 8%. In short, the elephant population is shrinking about 3% a year.

    Things are probably approaching a turning point. Because most of the elephants in the more lawless African countries have been killed off, poachers are turning to where most of the living elephants now are: Botswana and South Africa where rule of law is stronger. If these two countries can keep poachers out, perhaps, the crisis will ease. . . for now.

    An Aside:
    To hear the fundraisers tell it, for years now, we’ve been killing an elephant every 15 minutes or 96 a day. Since the elephant population is indeed falling each year, this suggests we’re killing a higher percentage of the remaining elephants each year. That then indicates the decimation must be increasing. That’s not happening. It does, unfortunately, propagate the impression that the poaching crisis is permanent and insoluble, but fundraisers will be fundraisers.

  6. I’ve posted here occasionally and have been following the conversations. I’m replying, I think, to “Jo”, who recently commented on Kenya’s ivory burn, believing that flooding the market with this ivory instead of burning it would drive down prices and somehow meet demand, thereby decreasing poaching. To read this is discouraging to me, basically because it’s been tried, most recently in 2008, and the demand skyrocketed instead, helping to increase poaching to current levels. The simple fact, well-known to those who’ve been paying attention for many years, is that all the elephants alive today in Africa could not meet present demand for ivory. There is no possibility of flooding the market; the market in Asia is simply too vast. This isn’t hyperbole, it’s just math. The only move that curbs demand is to outlaw all sales of ivory worldwide. This is what happened in the 70’s, and both demand and poaching dropped substantially. Flooding the market isn’t possible, and doesn’t work. If it DID work, Kenya would have done it. Tanzania has already done it. Doesn’t work. Poaching skyrockets. Remember what they call those who repeat the same actions over and over again, hoping for different results??

  7. Part of the problem I have found is the way people are approached to buy Ivory.

    It is usually old ivory and the logic used is often, this elephant is dead anyway it won’t hurt the animals now.

  8. What about drugs that turn human secretions orange (azo) or Rifampin which turns tears and urine orange/yellow – have pharmaceutical companies been contacted to see if they can create something elephants and rhinos can safely ingest (obviously not antibiotics – we don’t want to disrupt what is the norm for their diet and physiology ) but would with time discolor tusks? I suspect it would be a substance they (pharmaceuticals) have found to discolor nails in humans?? Perhaps this hasite already been looked into but it seems like there has to be a way to at least subtly change the color so that it is no longer an appealing item in that dark market that exists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s