The number of elephants across Africa has dropped by 111,000 in just 10 years to only 415,000 today, according to a study published on Sunday as global experts met in Johannesburg to discuss whether to lift the ban on the ivory trade.
The Pan-African survey, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, found that 50 elephants were killed each day since 2006 and laid the blame squarely on poachers seeking their precious tusks for sale mainly to Asian markets.
The African Elephant Status Report found that southern Africa had more than half the continent’s pachyderms, followed by East Africa – although its elephants were found to be the worst-hit by poachers with an estimated 50 per cent decline in numbers.
Armed groups including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army targeting Central Africa’s forest elephants have substantially reduced its populations.
The survey confirms the massive decline first revealed by Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s Great Elephant Survey released last month, which looked at Savannah elephant populations in 18 countries and found they had dropped by 30 per cent to 352,000.
It comes at the start of the largest gathering in the 43-year history of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the global wildlife body which oversees the protection of more than 500 plants and animals, in Johannesburg.
The 17th Conference of the Parties is likely to be the most contentious yet, with proposals on the table to re-open the trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory along with ways to protect threatened lions, sharks and pangolins.
Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, three countries which have large and stable elephant populations, are pushing for a lifting of the ban on the ivory trade, arguing that selling their stockpiles will release much-needed conservation funds and thwart illegal poaching.
On Sunday Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, said Zimbabwe wanted to be allowed to sell its ivory, and would also back the request by Swaziland to be allowed to sell its rhino horn stockpile.
She said that elephants were so overpopulated in some areas that they placed a strain on scarce resources in the drought-hit region. She said that as a result, she was considering selling live baby elephants to China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a lengthy conflict has decimated its own numbers, and Mozambique, which is struggling to combat rising poaching levels.
In an op-ed on the South African website, The Conversation, the Zimbabwean delegation’s chief negotiator Rowan Martin said the $1.5bn the three countries pushing for the ban on ivory sales to be lifted could help support their impoverished rural communities as well as their animals.
“Everyone agrees that the illegal ivory trade continues despite the international trade ban. It has been an abject failure,” he wrote. “CITES has had 27 years to evaluate the experiment and, far from being part of the solution to illegal elephant killing in Africa, the ban must be seen as part of the problem.”
Countries who oppose the ban include Kenya, which in April burned its $150m ivory stockpile. They argue that selling ivory will only fuel demand and result in the extinction of elephants within decades.