New research confirms surge in African elephant poaching

26 August 2014

An estimated 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012 according to new research released last week.

Using data gathered from across the continent a team of scientists found that over the last decade the proportion of illegally killed elephants has shot up from 25 percent to between 60-70 percent.

While the number of elephants left in Africa remains uncertain these numbers suggest that the onslaught to fuel an illicit ivory trade is causing a population decline of around 2-3 percent per year.

The research includes a case study from an area in northern Kenya known as Samburu indicating that a swell in confirmed poaching-related elephant deaths beginning in 2009 could be correlated to a more than four-fold increase in local black-market ivory prices, together with tripling of ivory seizures at Kenyan ports.

Data studied by the scientists also suggests that China had become among the top destinations for trafficked elephant ivory. 

“This study helps make sense of the challenge faced by thousands of rangers working on the front lines to protect elephants and other species across Africa,” said co-author Julian Blanc of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Secretariat.

“It also highlights the importance of the accurate collection of data as part of their day-to-day patrol work, which is essential to understand and communicate the true proportions of the threats that elephants face,” he continued.

In force since 1975, CITES is the primary instrument for regulating international wildlife trade, counting up to 35,000 species of fauna and flora on its “lists” that determine vulnerability levels and relative cross-border commerce restrictions. Violation of CITES rules could lead to compliance measures including, in theory, trade sanctions.

African elephants ­– with the exception of populations in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa – are categorised under CITES Appendix I, meaning that trade in their parts is generally prohibited, barring exceptional circumstances.

Last year an inter-agency report suggested that trafficked ivory flows had more than doubled since 2007.

Rhinos on the move

The poaching crisis has also taken its toll on Africa’s rhino populations. In response to a soaring number of attacks this year South Africa recently approved a transfer of up to 500 rhinos currently inhabiting its flagship Kruger National Park to “secret sites” within its borders as well as to nearby Botswana and Zambia

South Africa is home to the majority of the world’s rhino population, estimated at around 18,000 white rhinos and 3,000 black rhinos.

The moving task could cost more than US$1500 per animal. Rhinos have been moved in the past but the current crisis suggests the latest re-homing will likely be the largest to date. Last year saw poaching figures triple from 2010 levels while 630 rhinos have been poached this year including 408 from Kruger.

Rhino horns are valued at approximately $65,000 a kilogram on the black market, prized for medicinal purposes and as status symbols, according to conservationists. Johannesburg is looking at a range of tools to stem the killings, including the possibility of controlled farming and markets. 

International action

The surge in elephant and rhino poaching has not gone un-noticed by the international community. Combating wildlife trafficking more generally ­– including protecting Africa’s elephants – has lately moved up policymakers agendas from Nairobi to Washington to be recognised as a significant international challenge.

In February delegates from 46 countries ­– including key consumer countries such as Vietnam and China – gathered in London, UK pledged to act together to combat illegal wildlife trade with a particular mention of elephants and rhinos.

Participating states inked a 13-page outcome document calling for urgent action, effective deterrents, strengthened enforcement, and community engagement in affected areas.

The London event also saw the governments of Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, and Tanzania rollout an “Elephant Protection Initiative.” In additiona the five range states agreed to put their stockpiles of seized ivory beyond economic use. (See BioRes, 17 February 2014)

The pledges came hot on the heels of news that the US had announced a domestic commercial ban on elephant ivory trade.

Elsewhere high-profile symbolic events crushing ivory stockpiles took place early in the year in a number of cities including Beijing and Paris.

More recently, the illegal wildlife trade issue was also addressed in the outcome document from the UN’s inaugural global environment assembly held in Nairobi, Kenya in July.

Ministers called for, among other things, the implementation of national and regional commitments to fight illegal wildlife trade, action to target supply and demand, as well as zero-tolerance policies.

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), as the event is formally known, also saw the release of a report suggesting that global environmental crime – which equally includes illegal logging, fishing, as well as mining – could be worth up to US$213 billion annually. (See BioRes, 2 July 2014)

Elsewhere later that month the 19-member CITES standing committee – tasked with providing policy guidance on regulating wildlife trade – adopted recommendations and reviewed actions taken by parties to tackle trafficking in elephant ivory, rhino horn, Asian big cats, cheetahs, great apes, and pangolin parts.

In particular, the standing committee evaluated the progress made by eight countries towards developing national action plans designed to halt elephant poaching, following decisions at last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP).

The committee notably singled out Thailand for insufficient efforts in this area, setting Bangkok specific timelines for demonstrating progress. Participants reportedly said that they would consider compliance measures if the Asian country failed to meet certain objectives. (See BioRes, 15 July 2014)

ICTSD reporting. 

This article first appeared in the Biores, ICTSD.

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