Around 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers for their ivory on the African continent in just three years, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Between 2010 and 2012 an average of 6.8 percent of the elephant population was killed annually, equaling just over 20 percent of the continent’s population in that time. Elephant deaths are now exceeding births, which on average are 5 percent annually.
“We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent,” lead author George Wittemyer with the organization Save the Elephants told the BBC, noting that old elephants are often the first killed. Elephants are being killed for their ivory, which is then smuggled abroad to mostly to China, but also to Thailand, the Philippines, Europe, and the U.S.
Unfortunately data on elephant populations across Africa is uneven and in many places scant, making continent-wide estimates like these difficult. In this case, the researchers used some of the best studied populations in Samburu, Kenya to determine how many elephants were dying of natural causes versus poachers in the site. They then used two different methods to extrapolate this data.
In the first they employed good data in 12 sites across Africa to estimate the total poachers’ butcher bill over the last few years. In the second, they used computer modeling to estimate poaching levels at 306 sites. Both methods came to similar numbers: 101,784 elephants killed versus 99,997 elephants, respectively over three years.
Two adult elephants killed in close proximity in northern Kenya. Clustered kills are a sign of professional poaching. Photo by: Chris Leadisimo.
“This is the best work available from the best data we have using officials from the top organization, so in my mind this is the best you are going to get at the moment,” Wittemyer told the Associated Press. “Because of the magnitude of the issue and the politics we’ve been very careful. The scrutiny we did internally was at a much greater level than the questions we got in the peer review process.”
The numbers are also quite similar to other estimates from wildlife conservation groups. For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society has estimated that around 35,000 elephants are being killed annually on the continent. Others put the number significantly lower, i.e. 22,000-25,000 annually.
In all, conservationists estimate that there are around 400,000 elephants on the continent, but no one knows for certain.
However, the situation is far from hopeless. There are still some countries in Africa where poaching is infrequent and elephant populations are on the rise, such as Botswana. The numbers killed may also be dropping. According to the study, the slaughter peaked in 2011 with an estimated 40,000 elephants poached or about 8 percent of the population. The next year, 2012, the number killed dropped to around 35,000.
“Intriguingly, our analysis suggests the rate of killing slowed after the peak in 2011 both locally in Samburu and globally,
although it still remained unsustainable,” the scientists write. “It is critical to identify the drivers of this change in the rate of illegal killing.”
They note that the drop may have to do with restricting ivory auctions in China at the end of 2011.
Moreover, Africa’s elephants have already survived a massive poaching crisis in the 1970s and 80s.
“I have to be an optimist,” co-author and founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, said. “I’ve been through all of this before in the 70s and 80s. As a collective group we stopped that killing, and in the savannahs there was a reprieve of 20 years. I believe we can do it again.”
The conservationists told the BBC that if rates don’t slow, the African elephant could be extinct within a century. Complicating matters, is recent evidence that there are actually two, not one, species of elephant on the continent. A 2010 study found that forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis)—smaller, sporting straighter tusks, and residing in rainforests—are as distinct from their savannah cousins (Loxodonta africana) as Asian elephants are from woolly mammoths. Yet, forest elephants are rushing faster to extinction than savannah elephants. A study last year estimated that 62 percent of forest elephants had been slaughtered by poachers between 2002 and 2011.
Changila, a male elephant, before being poached outside Samburu National Reserve Kenya. Photo by: David Daballen.
- George Wittemyer, Joseph M. Northrup, Julian Blanc, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Patrick Omondi,
and Kenneth P. Burnham. (2014) Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in
African elephants. PNAS. doi:10.1073/pnas.1403984111
(08/12/2014) Marking World Elephant Day, a designation intended to raise awareness about the plight of elephants that are being widely poached for the ivory trade, primatologist Jane Goodall urged people to have greater compassion for Earth’s largest land animals.
(08/07/2014) The only way to save the long-suffering elephants of Africa is to close every ivory market on the planet and destroy all ivory stockpiles, according to a bold new essay in Conservation Biology. Written by Elizabeth Bennett, the Vice President for Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the paper is likely to prove controversial.
(08/05/2014) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has signed into law a ban on elephant ivory sales, reports NorthJersey.com. The measure, passed earlier by the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly, establishes fines for first-time offenders caught buying or selling ivory products. Repeat offenders have stiffer fines.
(07/07/2014) In the last four years the price of ivory in China has tripled, according to new research from Save the Elephants. The news has worrying implications for governments and conservationists struggling to save elephants in Africa amidst a poaching epidemic, which has seen tens-of-thousands of elephants butchered for their tusks across the continent annually
(07/03/2014) Two prominent NGOs U.S should sanction Mozambique for its role in elephant, rhino poaching, urges NGOsare petitioning the U.S government to slap Mozambique with trade sanctions due to the country’s role in regional poaching. The groups contend that Mozambique has done little to combat both its own poaching epidemic or stop its nationals from spilling over the border to kill rhinos and elephants in South Africa and Tanzania.
(06/16/2014) While illegal, the ivory trade is having a huge impact on elephant populations throughout the world. A new report issued by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) finds that while there was a small reduction in the number of African elephants killed by poachers in 2013, the rate is still unsustainable.
(06/15/2014) Over the last two months, poachers have killed 68 African elephants in Garamba National Park representing around four percent of the population. Poachers have used helicopters, grenades, and chainsaws to undertake their gruesome trade, and, for the first time, the park has recorded that the criminals are removing the elephant’s brains in addition to tusks and genitals.