Circuses as Conservationist Organizations?

All photos from the Creative commons.

This week, Feld Entertainment announced that the thirteen elephants now traveling with the three Ringling Bros. Circus units will be retired in 2018. They will then join the remaining herd of more than 40 elephants at The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

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On the one hand, this is a positive story of the environment. Asian elephants are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN crudely estimates that there are only 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants that remain in the wild. Retirement of the circus elephants appears to create one less demand for capturing wild elephants to be used in entertainment. However, generations of Ringling Bros. Circus elephants have been born from captive parents and therefore, for decades, have represented very little direct threat to wild elephant populations. But with any luck, this move by Feld Entertainment will motivate other organizations to stop the use of elephants in entertainment, including those that still obtain wild captured elephants.

There are some encouraging characteristics of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. Their website is translucent in explaining the goals of the center and the credentials of their staff. The center also works in partnership with Rajarata University and Peradeniya Unversity, both in Sri Lanka, to exchange veterinary, research and husbandry information. In addition, the center partners with zoos that have Asian elephants, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo, to advance medical research that benefits both captive and wild elephants.

 

On the other hand, the news of future Ringling Bros. Circus elephant retirement is not a positive story of animal rights. Feld Entertainment notes in their press release, “The circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels”. This particular circus has a history of using elephants in their acts beginning in 1881 when P.T. Barnum bought the first elephant born in captivity and, a year later, bought the African born Jumbo. Must we wait another 137 years for tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels to be given the same consideration?

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The IUCN estimates less than 3,000 tigers remain in the wild, listing all subspecies as endangered. The African lion is listed as vulnerable and estimated to have less than 100,000 in the wild. The Asiatic lion is listed as endangered with only an estimated 350 remaining in the wild. Bactrian camels, which are now used in a new act known as Circus Xtreme, are listed as critically endangered with less than a total of 1,000 remaining in the wild in China and Mongolia. But this now begs the question, “Does an animal species have to be endangered to be afforded freedom from the demands of a life in entertainment?” Are horses and dogs, as domesticated animals, not entitled to the same rights as endangered species?

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Many of you may be thinking of the pieces I have written expressing my support of zoos and aquariums, including Sea World. What is interesting here is the commitment Feld Entertainment has in caring for their herd of elephants while phasing out their life of travel, training and entertaining. Their commitment claims to include work that will benefit conservation of the species, which is the same reason I support zoos and aquariums, with the exception of scenarios where animals are required to perform, such as in the Sea World marine mammal shows. Zoos and aquariums are often sanctuaries for species that have little to no wild habitat left due to human encroachment and habitat destruction. It appears circuses may be wisely following their lead.

Elephant and Rhino Conservation: Three Encouraging Events in One Year

Forest elephants.  Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Forest elephants. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In September, 2013, conservation groups announced a three-year $80 million Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to bring together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Funding has been provided by the governments of the United States, Europe, and Africa and multiple other organizations, institutions, foundations, and individuals.

Nations joining the coalition include Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda. Commitment partners include African Parks Network, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Freeland Foundation, Howard Buffett Foundation, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, National Geographic, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, WildAid and WildLifeDirect. Commitment Makers include Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund.

Funds are being used to support national governments to scale up anti-poaching enforcement at the 50 priority elephant sites including hiring and supporting an additional 3,100 park guards. Anti-trafficking efforts are being increased by strengthening intelligence networks and increasing penalties for violations and adding training and sniffer dog teams. In addition, leaders from African nations have called for other countries to adopt trade moratoria on all commercial ivory imports, exports and domestic sales of ivory products until African elephant populations are no longer threatened by poaching.

The commitment runs through 2016 and addresses the problem on three fronts: stop the killing; stop the trafficking; and stop the demand.

So much of the burden of this commitment falls on the shoulders of wildlife rangers.  It just so happens that World Ranger Day is this week. World Ranger Day is observed annually on the 31st of July, and is promoted by the 54 member associations of the International Ranger Federation, by their partner the Thin Green Line Foundation, and by individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRFs natural and cultural treasures.

More than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide over the past 10 years, with many more injured in the line of duty.  Rangers in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda have been directly responsible for an increase in the number of Mountain Gorillas, risking their lives to ensure the survival of this Critically Endangered species.  In Virunga National Park alone, 140 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.  In Thailand, there are 20,490 rangers working in 411 protected areas. In the last five years, more than 40 park rangers have been murdered, with many more injured or left in a critical condition. Community Maasai Rangers in Kenya have helped increase the local lion population on their community lands from just 6 individuals to over 70.  So it is easy to see why the Partnership to Save Elephants and other similar initiatives are so important.

You can watch Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton announce the commitment Partnership to Save the Elephants at the 2013 CGI Annual Meeting in the following video. They were joined on stage by participating heads of state and leaders of groups partnering on the effort.

The second event relates to a topic I blogged about last week, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) annual Bowling for Rhinos event. Each year the AAZK sponsors a fund raising bowl-a-thon in which more than 60 AAZK chapters participate throughout the U.S. and Canada and typically raise between $200,000- $300,000 annually. However in 2013, $481,489 dollars were raised and a goal has been set to raise $500,000 in 2014!

Since 1990, the annual AAZK Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser has raised a total of $4,994,153. One-hundred percent of all funds raised goes directly to in situ conservation projects, conserving four species of rhino, their habitats, and hundreds of other endangered plants and animals. BFR helps preserve the black and white rhino in Africa and the Javan and Sumatran rhino in Indonesia.

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

The third event happened just last week. A South African court sentenced a rhino poacher to 77 years in jail, the heaviest penalty ever imposed. Mandla Chauke was convicted of shooting three rhinos, as well as murder and possession of illegal firearms, after he and two other poachers cut through wire fencing and illegally entered Kruger National Park in 2011. The murder charge was added because one of Chauke’s accomplices was killed in a shootout with park rangers. The third poacher escaped. “Our wish is to see a significant increase in such convictions,” South African National Parks chief executive Abe Sibiya said.

Stiff sentencing is needed to stamp out the medicinal demand for rhino horn, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and actually has no medicinal qualities. It is made entirely of keratin. The consumption of rhino horn is no different than the consumption of human toenails, in both futility and repulsiveness.

Unfortunately, poaching and poaching wars go on. In fact, I worry that there will be a surge in poaching activity in rebellion to a changing world as a painful but telling affirmation that new attitudes, bigger penalties and more effective protection of wildlife is actually having an effect. Old beliefs die hard and opportunities to earn a living are very challenging in many parts of the world where poaching bears the greatest threats to native wildlife. With so many partners in the fight to save wildlife and wild places, one can only remain hopeful that solutions will continue to be created that consider the balance of both man and beast. Call me a naïve optimist, but I believe the human spirit is capable of accomplishing anything.

You can be part of the fight by taking the pledge to help extinguish the demand for ivory.