Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed every year for their ivory tusks. The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewelry – China is the biggest consumer market for such products. According to the warning of the researchers, although the illegal slaughter of African elephants to supply Asia’s demand for ivory has decreased by more than half in eight years, elephants are still threatened with extinction.
In accordance with figures from CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), poachers killed some 40,000 tuskers in 2011 (about 10 percent of the continent’s population). Last year the kill rate was 15,000 tuskers (about 4 percent) and most of the poachers are from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
A century ago, there were about ten million African elephants and 100,000 Asian elephants (the two primary species), reports World Wildlife Magazine. Those numbers have plummeted in the last century, right now there are approximately 500,000 elephants left in the world (if forest elephants are included). Forest tuskers in the Congo Basin are estimated to have declined by 65 percent over the last 15 years.
In 1989, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory by placing the species on Appendix I. Once this ban went into effect in 1990, elephant populations in the wild stabilized somewhat. But the researchers emphasized that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. Despite the ban, demand in Southeast Asia and especially China has overwhelmed the capacity of local and global authorities to curb the carnage. A CITES program recorded the sighting of elephant carcasses by park rangers across 53 protected sites in Africa.
According to co-author Julian Blanc, a researcher in the Wildlife Management Unit of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi., Botswana’s elephant population has increased nearly tenfold since 1970.
Differences in poaching between sites were found to be linked with levels of corruption and poverty.
“We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining,” said Dr. Colin Beale, co-author of the study from the University of York. “The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in south-east Asia, and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling the demand in that region.”
The researchers called for continued investment in law enforcement to reduce poaching, alongside action to cut ivory demand and tackle corruption and poverty.
Severin Hauenstein, from the University of Freiburg, said: “This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the poaching crisis. After some changes in the political environment, the total number of illegally killed elephants in Africa seems to be falling but, to assess possible protection measures, we need to understand the local and global processes driving illegal elephant hunting.”
Ultimately, however, the biggest threat to Loxodonta may not be human greed but our ever-expanding footprint.
“Habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by humans may be the more serious threat to elephant survival in the long term,” said Blanc. West Africa — which today has, by far, the smallest elephant population — is also the region in which the most habitat has been lost to agriculture and urbanization, he pointed out.
“It is unclear whether a 2017 ban on the sale of ivory in China has dampened demand or simply shifted the once-legal trade underground. We have no good evidence yet that the ban and associated demand reduction campaigns are working, so I have concerns that the current decline may be temporary.” the researchers said.
Even though legally licensed in 2017 and no longer sold ivory the following year, the TRAFFIC team discovered large quantities of mainly African ivory on sale in the market town of Mong La and the total amount of illegal ivory pieces found had actually increased.