Ivory-seeking poachers are exhausting Africa’s elephant populations at an alarming rate, according to new research recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study provides the first reliable estimate of illegal elephant kills for the entire continent.
Africa’s poaching problem isn’t new, but only recently has it reached crisis levels. Historically, quantifying exactly how many elephants are illegally killed has been a challenge. Poaching often occurs surreptitiously under the cover of darkness, and sometimes it is difficult for authorities to distinguish between natural and purposeful deaths. Five years ago during field observations of elephants in Kenya, assistant professor at Colorado State University and member of The Wildlife Society George Wittemyer and his team began noticing increased rates of illegal killings in their core study area. “Beyond reporting this increase at the site level, it became clear that to elicit change and action, we had to expand our analysis to the continental level,” Wittemyer said.
Combining field-based carcass monitoring data with demographic data from their long-term study of a wild African elephant (Loxodanta spp.) population in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, the team distinguished between natural deaths and poaching deaths. Then, using CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) survey data on illegally killed elephants at 45 monitored sites around Africa, modeled poaching across the continent based on observed rates.
Wittemyer and his team found that overall, Africa’s elephant population—which the IUCN estimates to be between 427,000 and 690,000 individuals—is declining at a rate of about two percent annually. Starting in 2009, illegal killing reached unsustainable levels for the species as the amount of deaths began outnumbering births. Poaching peaked in 2011 with 40,000 elephant deaths and an estimated 3 percent reduction of the entire population—the worst year on record. Altogether, poachers killed 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012. And preliminary data from 2013 indicates that overharvesting continues.
“About 75 percent of the populations are now declining at very fast rates. Some are being extirpated, or may already be extirpated and we just don’t know about it.” —George Wittemyer
However, elephant deaths aren’t happening at the same rate across Africa. Central Africa was hit the hardest, losing 64 percent of its elephants in a decade. Other seriously affected areas include Mozambique in Southern Africa and Tanzania in East Africa. Meanwhile, Botswana’s population remains stable and poachers in South Africa have rarely attacked elephants, instead focusing their efforts on rhinos.
Feeling the Impacts
Although the study results reveal the elephant poaching epidemic to be larger than previously thought, Wittemyer said the results don’t speak to the impact of poaching on an ecological and behavioral level. The effects of elephants’ absence ripple throughout ecosystems. This keystone species plays a critical role in maintaining the balance between grassland and forest habitats, and dispersing seeds. When elephants disappear from the landscape, the species composition of the affected area changes.
Large declines of elephant populations also significantly impact the individuals left behind. Like most species in decline, decreasing genetic diversity leaves shrinking populations vulnerable to inbreeding, disease, and the effects of climate change. Elephants are social animals that form complex communities. Poachers generally target elephants with the largest tusks—primary breeding males and established matriarchs—disturbing elephant society and leaving orphaned juveniles in their wake. Wittemyer is continuing his research on the population in Samburu National Reserve, but is now focusing on the repercussions to the remaining elephants, especially juveniles.
An Uphill Battle
A driving force behind the surge in poaching is China’s rising demand for ivory. A hot commodity, just one pound of “white gold” can fetch approximately $1,500 in international markets—for reference, a male tusk can weigh more than 100 pounds. Poaching rates in Wittemyer’s study correlated strongly with rising ivory prices and seizures by Kenyan authorities of ivory destined for China. However, the country is taking steps to curb its insatiable ivory appetite. In January, officials crushed 6 tons of ivory tusks and carvings in part to raise public awareness. And in May, Hong Kong began the process of destroying 30 tons of confiscated ivory, which will likely take a year to complete.
But the desire for ivory reaches far beyond East Asia. “There are significant ivory markets in most major cities in the world; we have ivory consumption in the western world,” said Wittemyer. “A lot of illegal ivory is being sold in legal markets. It’s unacceptable,” he said. Last year, the U.S. government began destroying tons of confiscated ivory. And in February, the Obama administration announced a ban on the commercial trade of ivory as part of the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Both strategies have their fair share of controversy. Some economists say that destroying ivory only drives up prices, while politicians and lobbyists believe the ban isn’t enough to drive down demand and is detrimental to antique businesses in the U.S. and African economies that rely on tourism and big game hunting (see related story).
The commercial trade of endangered species is a global problem. At an IUCN elephant conservation summit held in Botswana in December 2013, delegates from countries in Africa and Asia agreed to 14 urgent measures aimed at stemming illegal killing and ivory trade, including imposing maximum sentences and fines for wildlife trafficking crimes, bolstering law enforcement and wildlife protection agencies, creating public awareness programs, and reducing demand by implementing strategies to change consumer behavior. Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been pledged by the U.S. government, the European Union, and NGOs such as the Clinton Global Initiative to protect elephants and other species from the wildlife trade.
The researchers emphasize that enhancing conservation efforts, enforcement, and curbing demand for ivory is paramount to stemming the rate of illegal killing. But finding strategies that are effective is another challenge. “Appropriate commercial trade is a fundamental issue for the wildlife profession,” said Wittemyer. “It’s an important topic and something that wildlife professionals need to understand and think about holistically. We have to determine best practices.”
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society News, August 27, 2014.