Sustainable development is of vital importance to the world of today and tomorrow. Equally important are the moral issues of the alleviation of abject poverty and wealth discrepancy. That is why representatives from the Tang Prize including myself travelled to Kenya recently (July 24-27) to visit the Milgis Trust, the recipient and executor of the Tang Prize Grant declared by the inaugural laureate in Sustainable Development, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. For the past ten-plus years of its operation, the Trust has been involved in "Community based conservation of wild African elephant in the Matthews and Ndoto mountain ecosystems, Northern Kenya.” African elephants have long been the target of poaching for their ivory, the demand for which drives a high price in black markets throughout the world even today and has led to over-poaching and a drastic drop in elephant populations. To combat these freighting trends, the Trust educates the local population of Kenya about the ill-effects of poaching and the ivory-trade, teaching instead the greater benefits of protecting the habitat; it has helped turn a culture that saw poaching as a viable livelihood to one that protects the wildlife and habitat in more sustainable models like eco-tourism. It is an inspiring example of a positive turn around in sustainability.
It is fortunate that I and the Foundation were able to learn more about the Trust’s operation and goals, and that we were able to participate in our own way in its future. While we stayed on the grounds of the Trust in the remote region of the Milgis Lugga, we signed with the Trust a Memorandum of Agreement that officially conscripted 5 million NTD (approx. 160,000 USD) to the Trust for their operational fees, in a plan that was introduced to us by Dr. Brundtland. We hope that this signing will be the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between the Milgis Trust and the Tang Prize Foundation, and that the Trust’s honorary warden Helen Douglas-Dufresne will someday visit Taiwan to share her ideas and experiences in environmental protection. It is regrettable to say that Eastern cultures, especially Chinese cultures, have allowed and even harbored a major market for the ivory trade; that is why this trip and our meeting with the Trust have been especially symbolic and meaningful for both our cultures.
Over an area spanning 6,000 square km, the Milgis Trust works with the local Samburu tribe to protect the African elephant and the cultures of the indigenous peoples. Once the land was traversed by numerous herds of elephant, numbering between 40 to 50 thousand. Now, sadly, many of these grand creatures are gone, having been killed and looted for their ivory. And the responsibility for this death and depopulation lies in large part with Eastern culture, including people here in Taiwan. Times are changing, though, even here. We now live in an era where environmental protection and sustainable living have become mainstream trends, where we have realized that our intervention in protecting these creatures is an imperative to our survival and theirs. Still, according to the 2013 statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) over 20,000 African elephants were killed by poachers in that year alone. As early as 2000 illegal poaching began to garner attention from the international community; the peak was reached in 2011, when deaths from poaching plateaued. Conditions are stabilizing, but the rate at which poachers kill still severely outpaces the ability of the elephants to repopulate and puts the species in a very real danger of extinction. Taiwan began restricting the ivory market in 1989 when it agreed to comply with the international ban on trade in ivory. But we still have problems with underground trade even today. Just this July 17, 120 name chops made of smuggled ivory were seized by police in Taiwan. The seizure is just another flare-up of a larger underlying problem, that there is still a thriving underground market fed by a desire for ivory, and that many people here in Taiwan have ivory chops or other carved works in their homes.
Why is it so important that we protect elephants from poaching? Elephants are a crucial link in the ecosystem. They are gentle, intelligent, family-oriented, and are held dear by the people they share that habitat with. Helen and the head scout Moses gave us an enlightening crash course in the importance of elephants to their entire habitat. When a herd of elephant lumbers through the bush, their massive bulks flatten undergrowth and stamp the ground into the paths that animals and humans alike use to move through difficult terrain. Herders use the paths to lead their flocks to water, a common destination for elephants and all life in Africa. Without these natural path breakers, locals resort to burning paths through the brush, naturally leading to an increased occurrence of dangerous and uncontrolled brush fires. Smaller animals also rely for their daily meal on the pachyderms. As elephants rummage through the brush for their own food, their massive bodies rub and bump against trees, knocking fruits down to the ground where animals in the undergrowth can easily grab them. Elephant dung, to any local in the know, is a great source of fuel for cooking due to the elephant’s inefficient digestion of grass, which leaves more than enough energy to be converted to biogas. Even an elephant’s itch is a blessing—as they roll on the ground to clean their bodies, they create little craters in the ground; when the rains come, these small depressions collect with water for other wildlife to drink. Elephants also search out hard-to-access water sources. They punch holes with their large feet in riverbeds until they find an underground source of water. In draughts, smaller hangers-on will follow the elephant just for the moment when the elephant finds a reliable source of water in an otherwise dry riverbed. Humans are no less indebted to these diviners of water—locals follow up on the elephants’ work by widening the holes and making them useable for their flock, their camels, their horses and their fellow tribespeople. These elephant-created pools then become gathering hubs for many different tribes as they stop to refresh their flocks, wash clothes, clean and cool their children and themselves.
Thanks to simple education from organizations like the Milgis Trust, local people are beginning to see the reality of the elephant’s impact on the entire ecosystem. Human-built water holes are sometimes destroyed by elephants through no ill-will on the elephant’s part. Locals now understand that the elephants have to drink too, that water holes might be damaged or destroyed every now and then by a thirsty elephant. People are now learning how to live alongside the elephants and share water and other life-sustaining resources. It is clear that local motivation is crucial. The Milgis Trust understands this as well, and has thus established a relationship of respect with the Samburu people by giving them the power and responsibility to protect the land on which they live. The Trust has put together groups of 30 scouts and 30 informers from the local society who watch and report on poaching activities, each in their own zone. On average, one elephant is poached each month in the protected area, compared to one elephant per day in the areas outlying; the patrols are an obvious improvement. The Trust has also added tourist safaris to the operational scope of the area, which gives local peoples more opportunities to earn a sustainable living. Other important activities of the Trust include establishment of facilities for water and electricity, medical treatment, and education—all necessities in a sustainable culture.
Despite years of diaspora and death, elephants are finally beginning to return to the area in numbers, largely in response to the environmental efforts of the Trust and the motivation of the local Samburu people. We have seen the real, positive results. After visiting the Trust and seeing the habitat for ourselves, we have a renewed sense of hope that we really can build a relationship of harmonious coexistence with this planet and all its panoply of life.