Pink tusks aren't real, but still help combat hunting of elephants for ivory

A recent surge in shares of this picture on Facebook has got people talking about dying elephant tusks.
A recent surge in shares of this picture on Facebook has got people talking about dying elephant tusks.

This pink elephant can’t be blamed on a drunken hallucination, though wildlife conservationists might suggest a certain level of intoxication to those who think their pink tusks could be real.

Reports abound online regarding elephant tusks being painted pink in an effort to devalue the ivory for poachers. A Facebook post, Stain Tusks to Stop Elephant Poaching, includes a photo of an elephant with pink tusks, but goes on to explain that the photo has been altered. The author then suggests that even though the photo is a fake, the notion of staining tusks should be explored in an effort to stop the killing of innocent elephants in Africa.

But wildlife conservationists say painting elephant tusks is hardly feasible for animals in the wild.

“The idea is impractical to impossible on a field-level scale because of the sheer logistics and cost to implement,” says Anne Lambert of the International Conservation Fund of Canada, a charity that focuses on global conservation work. “Darting and applying dye to elephants would involve a huge cost and stress and risk to elephants. And even if achievable on a small, enclosed population, poaching pressure would just be diverted elsewhere.”

Our research has indicated that one potential way of devaluing tusks would be the use of radioactive isotopes, but I cannot elaborate on that too much for now.

—Lorinda Hern, co-founder of the Rhino Rescue Project

A ban on the domestic sale of ivory would be a conservationists' dream but that is not the case in Canada and in many countries, says Lambert. She says the best way to reduce elephant poaching is to reduce demand for ivory thanks to public awareness, government crackdowns and greater enforcement. She is heartened that China, ivory’s largest market, is taking steps to put an end to the buying and selling of ivory.

Lessening the value of the poacher’s prize is a tactic that has been tried before.

The Rhino Rescue Project is a conservationist organization based in Johannesburg, South Africathat concentrates on the somewhat controversial method of horn devaluation by darting rhinos from the air. This immobilizes them so they can send in a ground crew to begin the procedure. To reduce the animal’s stress, it is blindfolded and its ears are plugged. Its horn is infused with animal-friendly-but-human-unsafe toxins and when completed the rhino is given the reversal to the anesthetic.

The thinking goes that if people learn about the danger of handling the horns, buyers will refuse to purchase them. It’s meant to act as a deterrent to the animal dying in the first place, unlike other anti-poaching methods some of which are only effective once the animal is dead, says Lorinda Hern, co-founder of the Rhino Rescue Project.

“We are experimenting with also applying devaluation techniques on elephants, but it would have to be a different method to infusion altogether, as a tusk is more similar to a tooth in structure than a horn,” she says. “Also a superficial staining would not deter poachers as it could easily be sanded down and the tusk still sold regardless. Our research has indicated that one potential way of devaluing tusks would be the use of radioactive isotopes, but I cannot elaborate on that too much for now.”

While painting elephant tusks is highly improbable, Hern applauds people for inventing ways to think about poaching more actively and creatively.

“Poaching syndicates are extremely innovative in how they market their illegal products,” she says. “We need to start employing the same tactics in our attempts to counter their efforts. Even a seemingly impractical idea may just be the spark someone needs to come up with something that does work. The problem is out of control, which means the solution can probably only be found outside the box.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international NGO that focuses on conservation and the environment, elephant herds have shrunken by 50 per cent since 1979 due to unmonitored domestic ivory markets that fuel the illegal international trade. It is reported that as many as 35,000 elephants are killed each year in Africa.

The biggest threat facing African rhinos is poaching for the illegal trade in their horns. Used for everything from cures for hangovers to cancer, rhino horn is a common ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Fueled largely by Vietnamese demand, rhino horn is also considered a symbol of wealth. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has increased by 9,000 per cent since 2007, from 13 to a record 1,215 in 2014.

The WWF doesn’t endorse horn infusion due to its impracticality, says Dr. Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist with WWF.

“The reason we didn’t endorse this method is because simply in order to do that you have to dart and anesthetize the rhino,” he says. “Most of the poaching is happening in Kruger National Park and that’s the size of Wales and it’s just not practical. Not to mention the fact that in a matter of time they would have babies and you’d have to do it again.”

Fighting the illegal trade of ivory and rhino horn involves tactics that include stepping up enforcement on poachers and smugglers as well as educating consumers about the disadvantages of purchasing these products. The WWF is also working toward a fourth pillar that raises the profile of wildlife crime.

“Any other kind of organized crime involving the amounts of money that are at stake in ivory and rhino smuggling would be a national concern for security reasons,” says O’Criodain. “So we’re not asking people necessarily to up the effort simply because we love rhinos and elephants, which we do and because they contribute to biodiversity and to eco-system health, we’re doing this also because we believe it’s a security issue.”