Saving the African Elephant
African elephants are dying at the hands of poachers in numbers not seen since the ivory wars of the 1980's. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that as many as 30,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory during 2012. An estimated 25,000 elephants were slaughtered during 2011. The underlying cause is escalating demand for ivory in China, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia stimulated by increasing affluence, facilitated by an expanding commercial presence in elephant range countries, underwritten by the growing involvement of international criminal organizations, and abetted by wide spread corruption in both source and destination countries. The price of raw ivory in China is now more than $1,300 a pound.
In October 2012, customs authorities in Hong Kong seized two ivory shipments totaling 1,209 tusks that originated in Kenya and Tanzania. In December, customs authorities in Port Klang Malaysia seized 1,500 tusks in a shipment that originated in Togo, West Africa and was bound for China -- the largest seizure in history. Between 2009 and 2011, seizures of large-scale shipments consisting of 800 or more kilograms of ivory destined for China and Thailand increased from 16,100 kilograms to 46,600 kilograms according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS).
The CITES MIKE program which monitors population trends and illegal killing of elephants provides stark evidence of the slaughter. Since 2004, over 11,000 elephants have been slaughtered in Gabon's' Minkebe National Park. Since 2006, the estimated elephant population in Chad's Zakouma National Park declined from 3,000 to less than 500. In Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve, the number of elephants killed by poachers has increased threefold since 2009 and now totals over 3,000. Across Africa, the proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE) is approaching 80% of overall mortality. The rate of illegal killing is now significantly greater than the elephant's natural reproductive rate.
The illegal ivory trade now impacts all remaining major forest and savannah elephant populations. Given the high value and relatively low risk of the illegal trade, inadequate law enforcement capacity, supportive cultural attitudes, widespread corruption, and pervasive poverty and increasing elephant-human conflict in rural communities sharing elephant habitat, the trade is not likely to abate without concerted effort and investment on the part of key elephant range countries, Southeast Asian and other consumer countries, the international community, donor agencies and conservation organizations.
In August 2011, the Standing Committee of CITES officially launched a trust fund to support implementation of the African Elephant Action Plan with the specific goal of raising $100 million over the next three years to, in the words of CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon, "enhance law enforcement capacity and secure the long-term survival of African elephant populations." Whether the funds can be raised and expended effectively remains to be seen, but without such concerted effort on the part of donors and the range states, the slaughter of African elephants will continue to escalate.
For its part, the foundation is investing $2 million a year to help protect African elephant populations at important sites in the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Kenya and Tanzania.