South Africa: Slowdown in African elephant slaughter may not be cause for celebration


Nan Spowart, The National

Date Published

A SLOWDOWN has been recorded in the illegal slaughter of African elephants but environmentalists have warned that this is because numbers have been devastated.

The new data also shows a very mixed picture with illegal killings still high in West and central Africa.

The demand for ivory in Asian markets saw 25,000 elephants butchered in 2011. Numbers were still more than 20,000 in 2012 and 2013 although they levelled off in 2014 and 2015 according to new reports from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as Cites.

However there has been a “troubling spike” in slaughter at Kruger National Park in South Africa, previously considered to be a safe haven, and poaching is still a huge problem in Mozambique. The highest levels of poaching were found in West and central Africa where illegal killings are far in excess of natural deaths.

“There are some encouraging signs, including arresting the overall upward trends in poaching, the decline in poaching trends in some sites in East Africa and the overall trends in Southern Africa,” said Cites secretary general John Scanlon. “This shows what is possible through a sustained and collective effort with strong political support, but much more remains to be done.”


HOWEVER environmentalists have taken no comfort from the new figures.

“It needs to be understood that poaching levels may be down but in some cases that is due to the fact the populations are severely depleted,” said Dr Susan Lieberman from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“If you look at some of the central African populations that have lost up to 70 per cent of their elephants you may see poaching stabilise or decrease but that is because the elephants are harder to find.”

She is also concerned about a proposal to allow stock-piled ivory from Zimbabwe and Namibia to be internationally traded. Currently all international commercial trade in ivory from African elephants is banned although a “one-off” sale of ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa was allowed in 2009. Now Zimbabwe and Namibia are to argue at an international conference in September for the ban to be lifted.

The topic will be debated by 182 countries at the Cites triennial Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg with those in favour of stockpile sales arguing that it would help conservation projects. Critics believe any trade would be used as a front for illegal transactions and would lead to an increase in poaching.

“As long as there is some signal that there may be a legal ivory trade, these speculators, traffickers and crooks are going to take advantage of it,” said Lieberman. “We’ve got China now saying it’s going to close its domestic ivory market, the very worst thing that could happen would be for the Southern Africans to get a nod that maybe you can trade in the future.

“That would be the death knell of elephants in central, West and East Africa.”


OVERALL species numbers have continued to decline despite the slight drop in number of those being killed illegally and some local populations face an immediate threat of extinction.

More African elephants are being killed than are being born even with poaching levels dropping for the fourth year in a row.

Ivory has been traded for hundreds of years but bans were introduced when the severity of decline in elephant populations became clear.

However there is still high demand in China and in recent years the price in China tripled, driving illicit poaching through the roof.

“Today we are confronting a situation of industrial-scale poaching and smuggling, the involvement of organised transnational criminal organisations, the involvement of rebel militia,” said Scanlon.

“We need to deploy the same sort of techniques that are deployed to combat other serious crimes such as illicit trade in narcotics, human trafficking or illicit trade in arms,” he said.

In January this year a British pilot was killed when poachers shot down a helicopter in Tanzania during an attempt to track elephant killers and at the end of last year cyanide was used to poison 14 elephants in Zimbabwe.

Animal rights activist Dr Jane Goodall is one of many who have spoken out against the trade.

“I have spent hours and hours watching elephants, and come to understand what emotional creatures they are…it’s not just a species facing extinction, it’s massive individual suffering,” she said.


If the elephant population becomes unsustainable it will be a disaster for the environment, say conservationists.

“Elephants are a keystone species,” said Samuel Wasser of University of Washington. “It means they create and maintain the ecosystems in which they live and make it possible for a myriad of plant and animal species to live in those environments as well.

“The loss of elephants gravely affects many species that depend on elephant-maintained ecosystems and causes major habitat chaos and a weakening to the structure and diversity of nature itself. To lose the elephant is to lose an environmental caretaker.

“Without elephants there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat.”

Added Tom Milliken of wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic: “We not only have to address the demand in China, but we also have to address Chinese criminal networks that have penetrated the supply chains here in Africa.

“The whole global community has to come together to make a future for elephants.

“I think if you lose elephants you are saying something about the future of humanity. If we can’t learn to live sustainably on Earth, if we can’t learn to share space with other creatures, what future is there for us in the long term?”