100,000 killed in 3 years, Africa may have no elephants in a few decades

Asia would be responsible for their disappearance, shows study that for the first time quantitatively demonstrates scale of illegal killing

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Wednesday 20 August 2014

Photo courtesy Colorado State University

Ivory consumption is unsustainable and is causing a dramatic decline in the number of African elephants, according to a new study, “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants”, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

An estimated 100,000 elephants (Loxodonta Africana) were killed by poachers across Africa between 2010 and 2012, says the new study, led by George Wittemyer, professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University's Warner College of Natural Resources.

An average of 33,630 elephants per annum are calculated to have been lost over the three years to meet the increased demand for ivory, especially from China and other Asian nations, reveals the report. In contrast to the rest of Africa, this study concludes that central African forest elephants experienced decline throughout the last decade.

The study is co-authored by Joseph M Northrup, Julian Blanc, Iain Douglas-Hamilton Patrick Omondi and Kenneth P Burnham.

For the research, Wittmeyer used a recent analysis  and data compiled under the CITES MIKE programme; it contributed significantly to this investigative study on the role of the ivory trade in elephant poaching. MIKE is a survey of elephant deaths, managed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

More large-scale seizures

Demand in Asia is fuelling poaching in Africa (Source: CITES)

The most updated and recent analysis, titled “Monitoring of illegal trade in ivory and other elephant specimens, Dec 2013”, from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) of CITES had also noted that illicit trade in ivory has greatly increased, reaching the highest level in at least the past 16 years. The frequency of large-scale ivory seizures (more than 800 kg) has also increased, indicating a highly-organized illegal ivory supply chain.

A unique research on elephant population in Samburu National Reserve in central Kenya, titled “Comparative Demography of an At-Risk African Elephant Population”, conducted by Wittemyer and published in PLOS ONE last year, was widely reported for its disturbing revelations regarding elephant poaching epidemic in Africa, and has provided key inputs and data for this study.

Dire warning

According to Wittemyer, “The real-world impact could be even direr than the [study] model predicts because poachers target the largest adults [for their bigger tusks], whose deaths decrease birth rates and disrupt social networks.”

He says his latest study is the “first study that explicitly and quantitatively demonstrates the magnitude of illegal killing and that the level of illegal killing is causing the decline of the species. He expects and hopes that his research is integrated into global policy decisions and is distributed largely and globally to those who are processing ivory. This will help curb the demand for this product.” (Watch George Wittemeyer speak about his work) Another report put together by by CITES Secretariat, IUCN / SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and TRAFFIC, “Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory”, reveals how unsustainably high poaching rates, which outstrip the birth rate of healthy elephant population, is leading to decline in elephant populations (see graph below).



Key recommendations by Wittemyer and his team
  • Increased global attention on MIKE carcass data and the adoption of PIKE (proportion of illegally killed elephants) as a measure of conservation success may serve the function of drawing attention to the problem, but also may risk the integrity of future data, as without standards of verification it could easily be manipulated.
  • Heavy in situ conservation efforts have been shown to stem illegal harvesting and, therefore, need to be enhanced in the face of the current off-take rates
  • Enforcement of end-user markets is also critical, and curbing demand—particularly in the Far East —appears necessary to reduce black market ivory prices.

Shrinking population

The study confirms that elephant populations in eastern and southern Africa were in good shape until 2008, but then started to decline. Now, about 75 per cent of the populations across the continent are shrinking.

A report submitted by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, at the African elephant summit in December 2013, also outlined the serious threat posed to African elephants from poaching and the illegal ivory trade while expressing concern over the range and habitat loss as a significant long -term threat to the species’ survival.

Earlier this month, a paper released by the Wildlife Conservation Society  on August 7, too, found that corruption, organised crime, and a lack of enforcement makes any legal trade of ivory a major factor contributing to the demise of Africa's elephants. Hence, to save elephants, all ivory markets must close and all ivory stockpiles must be destroyed, it said.

African states in which the illegal ivory trade flourishes are making some efforts to curb the malaise. They came together at the African Elephant Summit convened by the government of Botswana and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Gaborone in December 2013 and unanimously adopted 14 urgent measures to halt and reverse the trend in illegal killing of elephants and the illegal ivory trade promising to secure elephant populations across the continent.

CITES takes African nations to task

The CITES Standing Committee that met in Geneva, Switzerland (SC65) in July this year  also took serious view of the matter. It took African countries to task for allowing illegal elephant ivory trade and asked them to comply and implement CITES-implementing legislation by the next meeting of the Standing Committee in August next year.

The CITES Standing Committee at Geneva this July that followed the African Elephant Summit in December last year, which focused on the dynamics of the entire ivory chain, and now the seminal study by Wittemyer sets the agenda for global policy decisions and points to the urgent need to curb illegal trade in ivory and save the African elephants. But implementation of any plan would require urgent and proactive action.

You can contribute and support Professor George Wittemyer's research on elephants. Click here 

What is the conservation status of elephants at present?

To understand this, refer to the fifth update on the status of the African elephant, titled “African Elephant Status Report 2013”, under the aegis of the African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC).

Elephant conservation, illegal killing and ivory trade

Polishing off the ivory

Wildlife crime scorecard: assessing compliance with and enforcement of CITES commitments for tigers, rhinos and elephants

Review of options for managing the impacts of locally overabundant African elephants

Fighting illicit wildlife trafficking: a consultation with governments

Global trends and factors associated with the illegal killing of elephants: A hierarchical bayesian analysis of carcass encounter data, Plos One

Will elephants soon disappear from West African savannahs?

African elephants: surviving by the skin of their teeth, Current Science

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