A butchered forest elephant head in Minkebe National Park. Photo by: Mike Fay.
Surveys in Gabon’s Minkebe National Park have revealed rare and hard data on the scale of the illegal ivory trade over the last eight years: 11,100 forest elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks in this remote protected area since 2004. In all, poachers have cut down the park’s elephant population by two-thirds, decimating what was once believed to be the largest forest elephant population in the world.
“Without a global commitment, great elephant populations will soon become a thing of the past,” the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Cristián Samper, said. WCS helped conduct the surveys along with WWF and Gabon’s National Parks Agency, the ANPN. “We believe that elephants can still be saved—but only if nations greatly increase their efforts to stop poaching while eliminating the illegal ivory trade through better enforcement and reduced demand.”
While Africa’s savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) have often been the focus of media reports on poaching, it’s the continent’s forest elephants that have been hit hardest. Recent studies have argued that forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis)—which are smaller and sport straighter tusks than the more widely known savannah elephants—are in fact a distinct elephant species, and not just a subspecies. Forest elephants are found largely in the Congo, where political instability, poverty, corruption, and a lack of law enforcement have made poaching even easier.
Poaching has escalated in Minkebe according to authorities. In 2011, a camp in the buffer zone of Minkebe containing 300 gold miners exploded to 5,000 people, including miners, poachers, as well as arms and drug dealers. Officials believe that 50-100 elephants were being killed every day during this time. Many of the poachers are believed to be coming across the border from Cameroon.
Gabon has since upped its efforts to combat the runaway poaching, including recent seizures and arrests. Ali Bongo Ondimba, the president of Gabon, has proposed legislation that will increase prison time for unaffiliated poachers to a minimum of three years and 15 years for those connected to organized criminals.
“Over the last three years we have deployed 400 additional parks staff, 120 soldiers and 30 gendarmes in our fight to stop illegal killing of elephants for the black market ivory trade. Despite our efforts we continue to lose elephants every day,” Lee White, the head of the ANPN said, adding, “If we do not turn the situation around quickly the future of the elephant in Africa is doomed.”
The illegal ivory trade has exploded due to demand from China and parts of Southeast Asia. A recent investigative report in National Geographic, entitled Ivory Worship, argued that much of the ivory is being made into religious handicrafts, particularly for Catholics and Buddhists. Demand from East Asia is also decimating rhino populations, which are poached for their horns.
Larger than the U.S. state of Delaware, Minkebe National Park is also home to Western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, bongos, dwarf crocodiles, leopards, and African golden cats.
Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
(02/05/2013) The Sri Lankan government is planning to give 359 elephant tusks to a Buddhist temple, a move that critics say is flouting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The illegal tusks were seized in Sri Lanka last May en route to Dubai from Kenya; they are believed to stem from hundreds of butchered elephants, including juveniles, inside Africa, possibly Uganda. The decision comes after a high-profile National Geographic article, Ivory Worship, outlined how demand for ivory religious handicrafts, particularly by Catholics and Buddhists, is worsening the current poaching crisis. In 2011, it was estimated that 25,000 elephants were illegally slaughtered for their tusks.
(01/24/2013) By some estimates, more than 30,000 elephants were slaughtered across the savannas and forests of Africa and Asia for the ivory trade during 2012. The carnage represents as much as 4 percent of the world’s elephant population. Accordingly, some conservationists are warning that elephants face imminent extinction in some of their range countries. While the plight of elephants is increasingly visible due to media coverage, less widely understood is the role religion plays in driving the ivory trade. This issue was explored at length in an explosive cover story published in National Geographic by Bryan Christy last October. The story, titled Blood Ivory, detailed how demand for religious trinkets is driving large-scale killing of Earth’s largest land animal.
(01/21/2013) Three developing countries have recently toughened hunting regulations believing the changes will better protect vanishing species. Botswana has announced it will ban trophy hunting on public lands beginning in 2014, while Zambia has recently banned any hunting of leopards or lions, both of which are disappearing across Africa. However, the most stringent ban comes from another continent: Costa Rica—often considered one of the “greenest” countries on Earth—has recently passed a law that bans all sport hunting and trapping both inside and outside protected areas. The controversial new law is considered the toughest in the Western Hemisphere.
(01/15/2013) Soon a text message may save an elephant’s or rhino’s life. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is implementing a new alarm system in some protected areas that will alert rangers of intruders via a text message, reports the Guardian. Elephants and rhinos have been killed in record numbers across Africa as demand for illegal rhino horns and ivory in Asia has skyrocketed.
(01/11/2013) 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa during 2012 according to new figures released by the South African government. The total, which represents a 49 percent rise over the 448 killed in 2011, reveals the heavy toll the black market trade in rhino horn is taking on one of Africa’s best known and most endangered animals.
(01/08/2013) Over the weekend Kenya suffered its single worst elephant poaching incident when poachers killed an entire family of elephants. In all, eleven elephants were gunned down and had their tusks removed. Among the dead was a two-month-old calf. The elephants were killed in Tsavo East National Park.
(12/23/2012) Ivory smuggling surged in 2011, reaching its highest levels in nearly 20 years, says a new report released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
(12/12/2012) This week the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) announced a 14% decline in elephants in the Samburu/Laikipia ecosystem over the last 4 years. The decline has occurred in a population whose natural growth rate was measured at 5.3% between 2002 and 2008 according to the previous survey, suggesting that over 300 elephants are dying annually in the Samburu and Laikipia’s landscape, denting the poster child image of one of Kenya’s most important wildlife landscapes. Poaching and drought are the main causes of mortality in this population. The impact of poaching on tourism cannot be ignored, heavily armed bandits threaten more than elephants, if we can’t protect elephants how can we protect international tourists? But it’s the long term consequence that are of greater concern.