Scientists count the cost of China's obsession with ivory

Changila, a male elephant, before being shot dead for his tusks outside Samburu National Reserve Kenya.
courtesy of David Daballen

Scientists for the first time have put a figure on the damage to elephant populations in Africa from ivory poachers, determining that they are responsible for an average 2% decline in numbers every year since 2010, which puts the species at risk of extinction.

Up until now, no one has really known exactly what effect the poachers have, given that they operate under the radar and data collection has not been co-ordinated.

The sheer volume of elephants being killed is shocking.

From 2010 to 2012 the kill rate was 7% a year – some 33,630 elephants a year, the researchers believe – and in 2013 it was probably 5%. Set that against an estimated 4.2% population increase if there were no illegal killing and you can see why numbers are falling.

And its not just the number of kills that is threatening the species. The poachers are causing havoc among those elephants that survive the guns. The elephant population across the continent suffers from few prime-aged males, strongly skewed sex ratios, and social disruption in the form of collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans – a tragedy for animals that are social, family-oriented and intelligent enough to understand the nuances of human society.

Perhaps even more depressing than all this is the correlation the scientists found between the ivory price and the deaths. When illegal ivory is seized in large quantities – ironically to discourage the trade – the price goes up and more of the majestic animals are slaughtered to cash in.

George Wittemyer of Colorado State University and his colleagues, who compiled the data, began by investigating elephant poaching rates at a local scale, surveying elephant carcasses in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve to distinguish between illegal and natural causes of mortality.

To estimate poaching across Africa, the authors combined demographic data for the species with carcass survey data at 45 sites across the continent. The research is published today by PNAS.

The authors say they hope an accurate estimate of the population dynamics driven by poaching may help inform conservation measures and management actions. But that doesn't really address the root cause of the problem – the vast and insatiable demand for ivory, principally from China.

The video below, courtesy of Lucy King from Save the Elephants, shows an elephant named Resilience dying in agony after being shot multiple times in Samburu National Reserve. Only watch it if you have a strong stomach.

Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles