By Roberta Attanasio
Poaching — the illegal killing of wild animals — is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of African elephants a year. Poachers kill elephants to hack off the tusks, which are then sold to make valuable ivory trinkets, mostly for Asian markets. In 2012, Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in the New York Times that Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter.
How many African elephants, then, are slaughtered every year for their ivory? Results of a new study (Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants) published a few days ago in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that, between 2010 and 2012, an estimated 100,000 elephants have been killed in Africa by poachers. These killings result in population declines of wild African elephants on the order of 2 percent to 3 percent a year — a decline that is unsustainable and could lead to their extinction in 100 years or even less.
Chris Thouless of the World Wildlife Fund in Windhoek, who wasn’t involved in the study, told the journal Science: “Some of the assumptions in the paper are quite conservative, and it is possible that the real situation is worse than indicated.” Indeed, the authors of the study believe that the impact of poaching could be higher than estimated — poachers target the largest adults, whose deaths decrease birth rates and disrupt social networks.
Lead author George Wittemyer, from Colorado State University, told the BBC: “We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent.” The killing of the oldest and biggest elephants, explains Wittemyer, “means removal of the primary breeding males and removal of family matriarchs and mothers. This leaves behind orphaned juveniles and broken elephant societies.”
Let’s not forget that the highly endangered Asian elephants are also subjected to poaching. However, it is the extensive decline of African elephant populations that currently has a major influence on the global elephant decline.
Elephants display levels of intelligence observed only in humans, chimpanzees, dolphins and other animals capable of higher forms of thinking. Unknown to many, elephants are forest gardeners — they are essential to seed dispersal and to maintaining tree diversity.
“Witnessing the killing of known elephants, some that we have followed since they were born, has been terrible,” said Wittemyer in a press release, “Our data has become the most sensitive barometer of change during this poaching epidemic. We needed to quantify the scale of killing and figure out how to derive rigorous interpretation of poaching rates.”
The authors of the study conclude that solutions to this crisis require global action — we all agree with them.
The vast majority of the illegal ivory goes to China, where the middle class pushes the ivory price to “a stratospheric $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing.”
According to the Associated Press, China is aware of its image problem concerning the ivory trade. The embassy in Kenya this month donated anti-poaching equipment to four wildlife conservancies. Chinese Ambassador Liu Xianfa said at the handover ceremony that China is increasing publicity and education of its people to increase understanding of the illegal ivory trade. Liu also said that wildlife crimes are a cross-border menace and promised more action.