Hopes and Fears for Africa’s Elephants: Trends and their Causes


Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton

Date Published

Opening Speech at the Inaugural Giants Club Summit
by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton
29th April 2016, Laikipia, Kenya


My Story

I have been studying elephants for 50 years, and have served in the National Parks of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.   My work started in a golden age in the 1960s when the newly formed national parks were safe havens.  For the first time wild animals, including elephants, were not scared of man as a predator.

The price of ivory was stable.  The first wave of scientists came to make studies of wildlife living in their natural habitat.  No one in their wildest dreams imagined that one day men armed with automatic rifles would invade the parks and slaughter the elephants and rhinos, and yet it happened.

The Prior Crisis

The last ivory crisis started as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.  The price of ivory soared by ten times between 1969 and 1973.  Within a few years Kenya had lost half its elephants, Tanzania had a similar experience and in Uganda it was far worse. 

My own work changed from studying the behaviour of elephants to fighting for their survival. I joined with scientists and visited the majority of countries that hosted elephants in Africa.

Years later we found out that the main cause of the crisis was the buying power of ordinary people living in Japan who could suddenly afford to buy luxury status products at hugely inflated prices.  This strong demand for ivory in Japan has now changed, and young people there do not yearn for ivory prestige products the way their parents did.

The effects of this ivory trade on the elephants were far reaching.  Populations in East Africa tumbled one by one, in the great national parks, in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Tsavo, Samburu, Meru, Ruaha, and the Selous.  Central Africa followed suit.  In West Africa elephants had long been restricted to small pockets spread across the region.  In DRC, formerly Zaire, huge criminal networks exported vast quantities of ivory.

All in all an average of 700 tonnes of ivory was exported every year for a decade – roughly equivalent to 700,000 elephants – and Africa’s elephants are thought to have been reduced by over half, from at least 1.3 million to about 600,000.

This was not the first time elephants had been under severe threat, nor the first time that their extinction was predicted.  Elephant ancestors became extinct in Europe and America in pre-historic times.  In Roman times Pliny famously commented on how elephant numbers were diminished due to the demands of luxury, that is the desire for ivory.  In Victorian times there were severe inroads on elephants across most of Africa with the colonial expansion and their extinction was predicted many times by contemporary authors. Yet the elephants recovered in much of Africa in the 20th Century.

The Current Crisis

Now we are in the grip of a new crisis, this time fuelled by an economic boom in China and Southeast Asia. High ivory prices have attracted the attention of organised crime networks involved in smuggling, and rebel militias and poachers who conduct the killing. This is categorically not just an African problem. It is global.

Since the last crisis elephant numbers across Africa have continued to decrease, and the best current estimate is at the time of writing in the course of being written up in time for the CITES conference this year, by the African Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN with the enormous help of the Great Elephant Count of Vulcan sponsored by the billionaire Paul Allen.

Many formerly safe and healthy elephant populations across East and Central Africa have suffered drastic declines since 2008. The Selous in Tanzania and Niassa in Mozambique both lost over 50% of their population, while the forest elephants of central Africa may have lost two thirds of their number over the last decade.

Continent wide we estimate that 100,000 elephants were killed in just three years between 2010 and 2012.  Overall the rate does not appear significantly to have decreased since then. Some areas – such as Mozambique – have got worse. Others – such as Kenya – have got better.

Science was the light that guided us through the ivory crisis at the end of the 20th century. Its importance in the 21st century cannot be overstated. There is too much at stake to be led by speculation over what is happening to elephant populations and why. Policy that is grounded in sound science is what will help wild elephants survive rather than disappear from our world forever.

Given these experiences of the past, what might we see in the future? Let me articulate some hopes and fears. 

Worst Case Fears

I fear that if attempts to lower demand fail then poachers and traffickers may still predominate.

I fear that high-level corruption could continue to erode the efforts of Africa’s law enforcement, impoverishing her people and her natural wealth.

I fear that NGOs and International Agencies could remain fragmented in their efforts, beset by rivalries, fail to share information and coordinate their activities for the common good of elephants.

I fear that the elephants’ range could be eaten up by rival human development and the species dwindle into a few small protected areas.

I fear if killing elephants for ivory continues at the present rate that the surviving elephants become fierce and dangerous, reduced to small isolated populations, living in dense thickets, a danger to human beings and with no long term viability.  This could be an eradication of the wonderful, peaceful animals that are viewable by thousands of people from Africa and overseas who come to see them.

Best Case Hopes

On the other hand my hopes are stronger.  I hope that the elephant populations that have been reduced to tiny remnants in West, Central and East Africa recover and begin to play their part in restoring those ecosystems and economies.

A beacon of hope here is Botswana. A little over a century ago Botswana’s elephants were on the verge of extinction. Now the country is home to by far the biggest population in Africa, beneficiaries of a long term enlightened wildlife policy.

Great transparency was shown in inventorying, analysing and then destroying the large Kenya ivory stockpile. It is a both a symbolic beacon of hope and a practical measure finally to exorcize the scourge of poaching. The political will to end wildlife crime, and the current reform of the wildlife sector, is measurable in decreased rates of elephant poaching over the last three years.

The Elephant Protection Initiative aims to put ivory beyond commercial use and of the five countries who founded the Elephant Protection Initiative, three presidents are here today.

I have hope that through intelligent planning, based on sound knowledge, elephants can continue to play their role in preserving Africa’s great forests, and with them the water, climate and other ecosystem benefits that result from their survival.

I hope we can learn from the mistakes of other developed countries, now spending billions of dollars reconnecting fragmented ecosystems to “rewild” the very species and spaces that were sacrificed in their rush to develop. Instead – with effective zonation and planning – we could see elephants and humans coexisting in harmony, benefiting each other in the way we know they can.

With regard to trafficking of wildlife, I hope that concerned citizens, scientists who speak out, civic bodies, actors and activists, NGOs, interstate bodies, politicians, and governments themselves make common cause to counter high-level corruption and to counter the international criminal syndicates that trade in ivory, rhino horn, pangolins and other highly endangered species, using the same determination and ingenuity with which these parties break the law.

I hope that the price of ivory in China will continue to fall, and that the inspiring pledge of the Presidents of both the US and China to end virtually all ivory within their borders is implemented as soon as possible.

In Conclusion

For hopes to prevail over fears, we need better coordination. In my world, the world of science, all major papers have long lists of authors. None are solo efforts. Just as it is with science, collaboration is key to the future of elephants

Here today African Presidents and government officials are coming together with the NGOs.  NGOs themselves are coming together with each other and with Governments. 

There needs to be better coordination, conversation and collaboration, and that will be a vital outcome of this extraordinary meeting. I salute you, the members of the Giant’s Club who are gathered here today. Your support is urgently needed to secure the future of Africa’s elephants. Thank you for being here.