Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Can We Avert the End of Elephants?



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.


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

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