About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Can We Avert the End of Elephants?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint


Bull elephant in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa. Image: Kate Wong

Within the next 10 years, Africa could lose 100,000 elephants—a fifth of  the population—to poachers if the slaughter for their ivory tusks continues at current rates, according to a new analysis.  Some 22,000 elephants were killed in 2012. And large-scale seizures of illegal ivory (those that involve at least 500 kilograms in a single transaction) are at record highs: preliminary data indicate that 18 such seizures totaling more than 41.6 tonnes were confiscated in 2013 alone–the largest quantity in 25 years.

That’s the grim outlook authorities described last week at an African elephant conservation summit in Gaborone convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the government of Botswana. Delegates from 30 nations attended the event, including representatives from the African countries that harbor the elephants, transit countries where illegally obtained ivory moves along  trade networks and destination countries including China, where most of the demand for ivory comes from.  The aim of the summit [PDF], organizers said, was to “secure commitment at the highest political level to take urgent measures along the illegal ivory value chain.”

Summit attendees committed to implement 14 “urgent measures” [PDF] for stopping the illegal killing of elephants and the illegal trade of ivory, many of which support the broader aim of halting all illegal wildlife trafficking. Perhaps most significant, the delegates agreed to classify wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime” in order to “effectively unlock international law enforcement cooperation provided under the United Nationals Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition, and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime.” They also committed to adopting a zero-tolerance approach to wildlife crime and securing maximum sentences for perpetrators. In many countries poachers and wildlife traffickers have typically received little more than slap on the wrist for their offenses—a few days in jail, or a paltry fine.

Summit delegates also agreed to enhance the capacity of law enforcement and wildlife protection agencies at the national level to take on poaching syndicates, which are highly organized and heavily armed. And they pledged to create public awareness programs about the important role elephants play in the ecosystem and the effects of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade on the economy, as well as national and public security.  Another measure focuses on reducing demand for ivory by implementing strategies to change consumer behavior.

Global concern for elephant poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking in general is mounting. This past July the U.S. pledged $10 million to help combat poaching in Africa and appointed a presidential task force on wildlife crime. As part of that initiative, in November the U.S. destroyed its six-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory—worth millions of dollars on the black market—to signal that it will not tolerate the illegal trade. And on December 3, the European Union allocated 12.3 million euros to a program aimed at protecting elephants, great apes and other imperiled species. Nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and private donors are stepping up their efforts, too. In September a partnership under the Clinton Global Initiative committed $80 million to protect African elephants. In November, actor Leonardo DiCaprio gave $3 million through his foundation to to the World Wildlife Fund to help save tigers in Nepal. And last week Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen awarded a $7 million grant to the Botswana-based NGO Elephants Without Borders to fund a pan-African aerial survey of the elephant population that will aid conservation efforts.

But as the editors of Scientific American argue in the December issue,  wealthy countries such as the U.S. must make far greater financial commitments, as well as policy changes, to effectively fight the $19-billion-a-year wildlife crime industry, which supports terrorists and other extremist groups. Failure to do so will doom elephants and many other species, as well as countless innocent people caught in the crossfire of the wildlife wars.


Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 17 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Uncle.Al 2:08 pm 12/12/2013

    Publicly execute poachers, naked, by slow strangulation (hanging, short drop, long pop). It might not discourage poaching, but it would end recidivism.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 3:13 pm 12/12/2013

    Through in public execution of those who purchase objects made from ivory and you’d be introducing some balance into the equation.

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Cummings 3:14 pm 12/12/2013

    Throw in … (typo)

    Link to this
  4. 4. tekkiguy 3:41 pm 12/12/2013

    Burning ivory that is recovered from poachers is the wrong thing to do because it raises the scarcity and price of the product. That encourages more poaching. Instead, mark the captured ivory by exposing it to an ion beam that does not change its appearance, but can confirm that it was legitimately purchased from organizations that exist to capture poachers and confiscate the ivory. The sale of the ivory can support the anti poaching activity without taxes

    Link to this
  5. 5. Hereng53 4:28 pm 12/12/2013

    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do,,,,,,,

    Link to this
  6. 6. David Cummings 4:59 pm 12/12/2013

    Poachers aren’t the problem. Purchasers are the problem. Selling “marked” ivory still encourages the vast legions of mentally retarded shoppers in the world to purchase more ivory.

    Link to this
  7. 7. SoundAndFury 6:09 pm 12/12/2013

    Don’t get too optimistic, because there is plenty of evil in this world.

    Link to this
  8. 8. tuned 7:14 pm 12/12/2013

    I don’t think you can avert the end of YOURSELVES with all your planet poisoning pollution.

    Link to this
  9. 9. MutantBuzzard 7:20 pm 12/12/2013

    duh, cloning

    Link to this
  10. 10. vgill 7:24 pm 12/12/2013

    This is such an important issue for the world, what if each developed country would send money for equipment needed and guards for the elephants(and tigers)to keep them safe. Take the money from the “placating countries that hate us” fund, or the “unnecessary military actions” fund. I’m sure it would be OK with most of us.Seriously, it would be such a drop in the bucket.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Devonshire 9:13 pm 12/12/2013

    As we watch so many gorgeous species becoming extinct by the selfishness and ignorance of man today, it helps to always remember the words of the possibly most brilliant optimist in the world today:

    “The life we have on Earth must have spontaneously generated itself. It must therefore be possible for life to generate spontaneously elsewhere in the universe.”

    Professor/Astrophysicist/Cosmologist Stephen Hawking, for the Discovery Channel Program, Alien Planet (14 May 2005)

    Link to this
  12. 12. stargene 10:12 pm 12/12/2013

    Always, always follow the Money. Most efforts to save species, preserve the environment (such as it is) and so on, are tame, naive and ineffective. Overwhelmingly,
    the power of titanic vested interests, largely played
    out behind the scenes, easily neutralizes popular
    efforts even when polls show great majorities support interdiction.

    Regarding ivory, tiger parts and more, Big Money China
    is the greatest villain here. As long as Africa is filled with poor people struggling to merely survive
    and as long as the great Asian markets for this
    obscene trade remain immune to international law and
    the most common sense and decency, people will line
    up to supply the end of species after species.


    Link to this
  13. 13. mavaron 1:45 pm 12/13/2013

    This is not a question about public policies which restrict ivory trade ! The proper question is about economics. Consider the privatization of the elephants in Zimbabwe ( The population has flourished once the elephants were managed by private hands !

    Link to this
  14. 14. barbara g 2:05 am 12/14/2013

    What needs to be done in all of the African parks where there are any elephants left is to hire well armed,”AK47′s” armed guards that will follow the elephants as they graze and shoot to kill any poachers that attempt to kill them. The poachers use military weapons and mow down whole herds. If that type of whole sale slaughter keeps up Africa will be without elephants a lot sooner than ten years. If some poachers are killed it will get around that its a death sentence to attempt to kill any elephant in the bush. That is the only way to stop it because all of these organizations are to slow to really get anything done in time to help the elephants. The governments all have the ability right now to send out these guards.

    Link to this
  15. 15. davidhof 7:31 am 12/15/2013

    The “14 urgent measures” adopted by the IUCN Summit are a cruel joke at the expense of the elephants. Just more bureacratic paper pushing.
    The first and most urgent practical measure that MUST be adopted is to establish a secure, poacher-free sanctuary for African elephants in the Gamba Grass-infested portions of Australia. They will thrive there, will help to restore ecological balance to the area, and can provide an “insurance policy” against the all-too-likely possibility that the African elephant becomes extinct in the wild on its native continent. And they will be under the protection of an advanced economy, governed by the rule of law and with a political culture that does not tolerate corruption.
    The second step is to figure out ways and means for the cultivation of elephants to be made profitable in Africa. Unfortunately the most promising alternative — farming them for ivory — has been closed off. But to expect countries that can barely feed, imunize and educate their human residents to maintain these animals as a public service is irrational. The comment of “mavaron” above suggests that Zimbabwe is showing the way.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Devonshire 9:44 am 12/15/2013

    We could probably stop ALL these different species from becoming extinct quite quickly IF we instituted:

    - Forced birth control for man

    - Viagra to all OTHER species

    Link to this
  17. 17. Devonshire 10:17 am 12/15/2013


    “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.”

    Albert Einstein

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article