Building on past research by the Wildlife Conservation Society indicating that 65% of Central Africa’s forest elephants perished due to poaching for ivory between 2002-2013, a new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology indicates that it will take nearly a century for these animals to recover because of their slow reproduction rates.
While forest elephants are under extreme threat, an unprecedented aerial census undertaken over the past two years indicates that Africa’s savanna elephants are facing devastating poaching pressures, particularly in West, Central, and Eastern Africa.
The Great Elephant Census, funded by Microsoft founder Paul Allen and undertaken by a team of scientists, NGOs and government wildlife departments, has now documented that savanna elephants are currently declining at a rate of 27,000 — or 8% — per year, with a total of 144,000 lost in less than a decade. In Tanzania and Mozambique alone, some 73,000 elephants perished in a recent five-year span.
The numbers in the Great Elephant Census and findings of the forest elephant study tell us we need to be worried. But worrying won’t save elephants.
Implementation of well-designed strategies will and we know the solutions: strong protected area and landscape scale management at elephant population sites; adequate funding, training, and management support for rangers and other wildlife law enforcement personnel; reduced demand for ivory; and the shutting down of remaining ivory markets.
While shocking, the results the study and census sadly did not come as a great surprise. From my position as president and CEO of WCS, I visited Andrea Turkalo, co-author of the new forest elephant study, just a month before she fled her Central African Republic work station in 2013 in advance of rebels who massacred 26 elephants.
I have traveled with brave wildlife rangers to the site of recently poached elephants in Mozambique’s spectacular Niassa landscape and followed the news of the continuing elephant slaughter from our staff there as we ramp up our efforts with government to secure them.
WCS led the aerial surveys for savanna elephants in 8 of the 18 countries covered by the census. While 84 percent of the African savannah elephants counted occurred in protected areas, in too many cases they are still not doing a good enough job at protecting elephants.
There are some signs of hope. Where site management levels are good and the necessary resources, management systems, and training are available elephant numbers have stabilized or increased. These numbers could play a significant role at the quadrennial IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress taking place in Hawaii this week.
Here, delegates are poised to pass a motion calling for closure of domestic ivory markets across the world. Later this month in South Africa at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, we likewise expect a unified call to close global domestic ivory markets as the U.S., France and other nations have already done.
As a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, I have been pleased to see that protecting elephants is very much a bipartisan issue in the U.S. Just this month James Baker, Secretary of State to George H.W. Bush, issued a forceful plea to halt the ivory trade and the Senate will soon take up the Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
Nevertheless, there is a pressing need for the international community to re-double its efforts to effectively protect key elephant populations, combat trafficking in ivory, and very significantly reduce the demand for ivory — in Asia to be sure, but in other markets as well.
There has been plenty of talk and plenty of worry. What is needed now is more action. You can begin by expressing your support through the 96 Elephants partnership for the END Wildlife Trafficking bill in the U.S. Senate.
Samper is president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.