Demand for ivory fuels dramatic surge in elephant poaching

BY Anya van Wagtendonk  August 19, 2014 at 3:50 PM EST
100,000 elephant have been illegally poached in the past three years, a rate that could lead to extinction, says a new study published Monday. Photo by flickr user Matt Biddulph

100,000 elephant have been illegally poached in the past three years, a rate that could lead to extinction, says a new study published Monday. Photo by flickr user Matt Biddulph

As global demand for black-market ivory soars, the number of elephants killed for their tusks has reached unsustainable new heights, according to a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the most comprehensive analysis of African elephant illegal killing rates to date, a team of researchers led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, and consisting of experts at the world’s leading elephant conservation networks, said approximately 100,000 elephants were illegally killed between 2010 and 2012.

2011 was the worst year, with an estimated 40,000 deaths – a 3 percent species reduction on the continent. Poaching deaths now account for nearly 65 percent of African elephant deaths, up from 25 percent a decade ago.

At that rate, elephants could be extinct within the next 100 years.

The dramatic rise in illegal death rates correlates with higher demand for black market ivory, the study says, particularly among China’s rising middle classes, for whom ivory is a status symbol.

George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, the study’s lead author, says increased demand for ivory derived from elephant tusks is behind the dramatic surge in illegal poaching. Photo by flickr user USFWS Mountain-Prairie

George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, the study’s lead author, says increased demand for ivory derived from elephant tusks is behind the dramatic surge in illegal poaching. Photo by flickr user USFWS Mountain-Prairie

The causation in my mind is clear,” says Wittemyer.

The clandestine nature of poaching operations makes studies such as this one difficult to carry out. As a result, some of the study’s conclusions are conservative estimates, and “it is possible that the real situation is worse than indicated,” said Chris Thouless of the World Wildlife Fund in Windhoek, who was not involved in the study.

Current poaching practices can also have ripple effects, Wittemyer says. Hunters target large adults, whose tusks can fetch up to $375,000 apiece, orphaning calves and disrupting social networks.

Now that quantifiable data exists on the problem, Wittemyer said, the only solution is a collective, international response.

“At the higher policy levels there have been a lot of questions and debate about what the numbers actually are, what they indicate, and how we should be interpreting them,” Wittemyer said. “There hasn’t been a robust scientific piece to rely on definitively as the source. In my mind what we’ve locked down here and provided the community — and in my mind we’re really targeting the policymakers — are definitive numbers on which they can act.”