Poaching drives huge 30% decline in Africa’s savanna elephants


Jessica Aldred, The Guardian

Date Published


Poaching has driven a huge decline in Africa’s savanna elephants with almost a third (30%) wiped out between 2007 and 2014, the first ever continent-wide survey of the species has found.

Around 144,000 animals were lost over a seven-year period in 15 African countries, declining at a rate of 8% a year. The population across those countries today stands at 352,271 elephants.

The biggest drops in numbers were recorded in Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania, with surprisingly low numbers found in north-eastern DRC, northern Cameroon and south-west Zambia.

However South Africa, Uganda, parts of Malawi and Kenya, and the W-Arli-Pendjari – a conservation complex of protected areas spanning Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso that contains west Africa’s only large elephant population – were found to have stable or slightly increasing elephant populations.

New populations were found in Ethiopia and Kenya, and rediscovered in an area of Botswana where they had been thought to be locally extinct.

The ambitious three-year Great Elephant Census (GEC), funded by Microsoft billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen, used a fleet of small planes to find and count savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana africana).

“This was an extraordinary collaboration across borders, cultures and jurisdictions. We completed a successful survey of massive scale, and what we learned is deeply disturbing,” said Allen. “Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species.”

The census estimated there to be a total of 352,271 savanna elephants in Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, W-Arli-Pendjari (Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin), Zambia and Zimbabwe. South Sudan and Central African Republic will be surveyed by the end of 2016.

Africa’s elephants are in crisis, with around 20,000 killed in 2014 alone for their tusks, at a rate faster than they are being born. There were estimated to be more than 1 million during the early 20th century, but the population plummeted to an estimated 300,000–600,000 as many thousands were killed for their ivory between 1970 and 1990.

Populations recovered in some countries following a Cites trade ban in 1989, but since the early 2000s, the rise of the middle classes in the far east has fuelled a new demand for ivory products. The black market wholesale price for ivorysoared in China from $120/kg in 2002 to $2,100/kg in 2014.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, armed conflict and mining have also affected numbers.

Establishing a clear picture of the numbers and distribution of the great majority of Africa’s savanna elephants will provide a baseline that is critical to conservation efforts, said Mike Chase, GEC principal investigator and founder of Botswana-based charity Elephants Without Borders.

“Until we flew the aerial survey, no one had an solid evidence on the status of elephants, so how can you begin to conserve them when you don’t know how many there are or where they occur? We are armed with information now – we have solid reliable estimates as a baseline and benchmark to shock people out of apathy.

“The GEC now holds us accountable. Never before in the history of elephant conservation have we had such solid, precise data on their status, and the only measure of success now is increasing their numbers.”

Chase said the acceleration in decline due to poaching began after 2010 and showed “no signs of it letting up”. The biggest action that would tackle the crisis would be to end demand for ivory and close down the market, he said.

“People talk about poaching, but in the long-term it’s also about securing space for habitat. Elephants are under siege. In 15 of the GEC countries, the human population is going to double by 2050. Elephants will be compressed to eke out a living in small islands of protected areas. We need to give them the space and freedom of Africa.”

The unprecedented survey, carried out by Allen’s company Vulcan with £7m of funding, is the first continent-wide aerial survey of African elephants using standardised data collection and technical validation methods, involved more than 90 scientists, six NGOs and many volunteers and conservationists on the ground.

“This project required a Herculean effort on the part of many partners since its launch in December 2013, with 81 airplanes and 286 crew members flying roughly 463,000 kilometres to complete the survey,” said Vulcan wildlife conservation director James Deutsch.

Until now, surveys had been fragmented or isolated, and undertaken on a regional or country-by-country basis.

The census findings were unveiled on Wednesday at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii. More than 80% of the GEC data will be incorporated into the IUCN’s African Elephant Status report due in two weeks, which will be used to shape major policy decisions about the future of elephants.

It also comes less than a month before the 17th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, which will debate three proposals on the international trade in ivory.

Heather Sohl, chief adviser on Wildlife at WWF-UK, said the report confirmed fears that elephant numbers were continuing to decline rapidly in many parts of Africa.

“The illegal ivory trade is an international problem and it urgently needs global implementation of the right solutions. This report is very timely as the ivory trade will be a hot topic of discussion at Cites next month and we need the international community to have a constructive debate on addressing issues that will help tackle poaching and illegal ivory trade, including stronger laws, measures to counter corruption, and more vigilance at key ports from which ivory continues to be smuggled out of Africa.

“Critically, we also need global efforts towards significantly reducing the demand that drives the illegal ivory trade. We call on the international community to use Cites to reach agreement on these issues so we can make progress before it is too late.”

Separately, a new report from the NGO Traffic, which monitors the illegal wildlife trade, found that although the antiques ivory market in the UK appears to have declined significantly, there are still thousands of ivory items on sale in London’s markets.