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Elephant On The Menu? It's Not Just A Birthday Dish For Robert Mugabe

An African elephant in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park is a draw for tourists.

Newspapers around the world have reported that elephant was to be served at a $1 million birthday party for Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe, held on Saturday.

"It just demonstrates that he does not care what the world thinks, nor does he have any respect for wildlife," says Daniel Stiles, an animal conservationist who has investigated the poaching of elephants over the past 15 years and authored a 2011 report on the elephant meat and ivory trade for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Elephant is not a part of the culinary tradition in southern Africa, nor in eastern Africa, says Stiles. Elephant meat eaten in these regions usually comes from an animal killed in a human-elephant conflict — say, the elephant was destroying crops. The meat is often distributed to the local community.

In Central Africa, however, the illegal hunting of elephants for meat is a problem. In his report for IUCN about the elephant meat trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Stiles concluded that the illegal slaughter of elephants isn't solely motivated by the desire to sell their ivory tusks. The sale of elephant meat is an incentive for poachers who aren't connected to the ivory trade.

And because of a shortage of other bush meat in Central Africa, he says, "elephant is increasingly on the menu," That demand is driving up prices. Is it worth the money? "I've only tasted it smoked (dried) in stew, and it's quite OK," he says. "Fresh, I couldn't say, but people who eat it like it."

Press reports on the Mugabe party say that a Zimbabwean landowner Tendai Musasas, killed the elephant, which was reportedly damaging crops.

Even if that is true, there's another side to the impact of elephants on local economies.

Elephants bring in tourists and their dollars, says Resson Kantai Duff, acting head of awareness for the conservation group Save the Elephants. The death of even one elephant is "taking away from [the community's] ability to earn money."

It is also taking away a member of an elephant family, Duff says. Researchers have documented behavior that includes touching the carcass or bones of a deceased elephant, which some believe is a sign of grief or mourning.

But the death of one elephant for a Mugabe extravaganza pales beside the larger picture. A study last September found that illegal killing for ivory wiped out 100,000 elephants from 2010 to 2012. "Elephants are in deeper and deeper trouble," Fiona Maisels, who was on the study team, told NPR. Says Duff: "That's what the world should focus on."

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