Shenton Safaris

Elephants decline by 97% in less than a century

EXTRACT FROM THE FOLLOWING THIRD PARTY SOURCE: Written by Scott Ramsay of LoveWildAfrica for Traveller24

The bull elephant loomed over us. We knelt low to the ground. My guide Stretch Ferreira was calm, but my heart was pounding in my chest. We were in Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe, a place where visitors can walk freely among the wild animals.


The bull elephants on these floodplains of the Zambezi River have come to trust a few of the most experienced safari guides. Stretch has guided here for more than 30 years. He knows each bull by sight, and they know him. Stretch placed a few acacia pods on the ground, and the bull walked even closer to us, picking up the pods with his trunk and crunching them between his molars. We sat quietly as the elephant stood within touching distance of us. After several minutes, he moved off quietly, leaving us awestruck.

Hundreds of visitors in Mana Pools are able to encounter elephants up close every year, guided by experts who know how to read the animals’ behaviour. The trust that elephants have for humans is exceptional. Yet in most of Africa elephants and humans are not on such good terms.

Accurate estimates suggest that there were 12 million elephants in the early 1900s. Today there are only 350,000, which includes both savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).

That’s a 97% decline in a century.

Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe

And the killing is accelerating. Poachers are currently shooting elephants at a rate of about 100 per day, or about 30,000 every year. In other words, about 10% of the population is being wiped out ever year. More elephants are being killed than being born.

‘Poachers’ is a euphemistic term for what is actually a highly organised network of criminals. In East, Central and West Africa, terrorist groups like Lord’s Resistance Army and Al Shabab are slaughtering elephants in their hundreds, using helicopters, AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades and night-vision goggles. There is big money in ivory, mostly in China, and it funds the criminal networks handsomely.

According to National Geographic, a pair of ivory chopsticks can sell for several thousand dollars, and carved tusks can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While southern Africa’s elephant population on the whole is mostly stable, the rest of the continent has seen a catastrophic decline. Tanzania has lost 60% of its elephants in the last five years, down to just 44,000. Mozambique has fewer than 10,000 elephants in the whole country, a loss of 48% in the last five years. The forest elephants of Central and West Africa – a separate, but closely related species to the savannah elephant – are crashing too. About 65% of the total number of forest elephants have been killed in the last 12 years.

Elephants of most African countries are currently listed on Appendix 1 of CITES, the international organisation that administers the trade in endangered animal species and their body parts. According to CITES, “Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species”. However, elephants from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe are currently listed on Appendix II.

According to CITES, “Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.” Until 1989, all elephants in Africa were listed on Appendix II, which allowed restricted trade in ivory. But as a result of the trade, poaching increased dramatically, and in 1989 all elephants were listed on Appendix I, effectively banning ivory trade. The price of ivory immediately fell, and poaching declined quickly.

For eight years the ban remained in place and several countries – like Kenya, Gabon, Chad, Mozambique and Zambia – burnt some or all of their ivory stockpiles. Elephant populations recovered to such an extent that in 1997 Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia proposed to list their elephants once again on Appendix II.

The ban on ivory trade for these countries was lifted, and in 2000 the ban was also lifted for South African elephants, but only included trade in leather goods, not ivory.

The lifting on the ban of ivory sales from the Southern African countries stimulated demand for consumer ivory in Asia, and immediately caused poaching to increase. In 1999, Japan bought 55 tons of ivory legally, and in 2008, China bought 73 tons, and actively promoted the trade in ivory carvings.

But despite the gloomy statistics, there’s been some good news for elephants.

Due to intensive lobbying from conservationists, the Chinese and US governments have recently agreed to institute near complete bans on trade in ivory in their countries. This includes the importation of trophy hunting elephant heads and their tusks.

And the first signs of this ban are promising.

Ivory prices in China have fallen by half in the past 18 months, from US$2,100 to US$1,100 per kilogramme. Could this be the start of the resurgence of elephant populations in Africa?

Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe

What the elephant conservation experts have to say: 

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been. Particularly because the economies of Asian countries, especially China, have grown exponentially. Ivory is part of Chinese culture and history – it’s a commodity that indicates a certain status. If we’re serious about saving a species as important and as symbolic as the elephant, then we’ve got to bite the bullet and say, ‘We don’t need ivory.’ It’s complete and utter nonsense to say, ‘We need it.'” – Richard Leakey

“I think it’s a ridiculous idea coming right now (the potential lifting of the ban on ivory sales across Africa), when there’s a huge surge of killing going on. The current ivory trade is totally unsustainable, so why would we want to legalise it? Especially when bans have worked in the past. I think what we have to do is now make all of ivory totally illegal and not start talking about legalising ivory. I don’t know who is actually talking about it but I think it’s a crazy idea.” – Iain Douglas-Hamilton

“The ivory price collapse in China is much-needed good news for Africa’s elephants. This is an essential first step in ending the poaching crisis. The banning of the market in China and the United States puts pressure on Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan to follow suit”- WildAid


How to get involved:

– Donate money to organisations like Save the Elephants and WildAid. These organisations are affecting change both in Asia (to reduce demand among consumers), and in Africa (to help protect elephants in the wild from poachers).

– Visit the national parks of Africa where elephants still live. Kruger, Chobe, Gorongosa, Mana Pools, Hwange, Addo Elephant, and Etosha. Your tourism money provides a valuable source of income and employment for local communities, many of which have to live in close – and sometimes dangerous – proximity to elephants.

– Speak up. Talk to your friends, your family and your colleagues. Spread awareness.

News Desk

A collection of current affairs articles and press releases from third party sources.

  • Peter McQuaid

    For anyone reading this, including the author Scott, I would suggest you take a look at the following articles pasted below. There are some inaccurate statements in this article (probably unintentional, but still in need of reexamination).

    First, the price of ivory did not drop as a result of the Chinese ban (WCS confirmed that the price had gone down well before the ban was put in place), and second, the one off sales did not increase consumer demand as has been repeatedly misreported. What it did was stimulate ivory purveyors’ uncertainty over future supply because the two transactions were finite.

    Unfortunately, the drive-by media doesn’t do enough research to understand the complexity surrounding ivory poaching. It is more than a good guy/bad guy scenario, and goes much deeper when you scratch away the surface.

    “We should remember that the ultimate objective is to stop elephant killing for ivory, not killing ivory trade. The anti-trade movement seems to have lost sight of that fact.” –Dan Stiles

    • Deputydog

      Now I am confused … I think. We don’t want to kill the Ivory trade, but we do want to stop killing elephants for Ivory. Too complex for me obviously – I just thought stamping out the trade in ivory, and therefore poaching, seemed a reasonable objective.

      • Peter McQuaid

        Another false assumption is that banning the legal ivory trade will stop poaching. If I believed it were that simple, I would be leading the charge to close legal ivory markets. But it’s not that simple. After studying the issue closely, I’ve come to the conclusion that a limited legal trade in ivory is likely to help elephants more than the current prohibitionist regime.

        A coalition of US and European groups is encouraging worldwide domestic trade bans on elephant ivory and destruction of national ivory stockpiles as a strategy to save elephants from extinction. Regrettably, this “Stop Ivory” approach reflects an overly simplistic, Western viewpoint founded in animal rights ideology. It inflicts questionable policies on African countries, with disastrous consequences for both Africa’s people and wildlife.

        The ban-ivory-everywhere policy pursues a top-down, authoritarian approach that aims to protect wildlife through prohibiting trade, increasing law enforcement, and constricting supply by confiscation and destruction. It recalls the “War on Drugs” – and we have seen how well the War on Drugs has worked. The results have been the rise of brutal criminal gangs, widespread corruption of government officials, and increasing use of illegal drugs. The complete ivory ban strategy relies on the same prohibitionist thinking, without considering the alternative of regulated use and taxation accompanied by consumer education to lower demand, a strategy which has shown success in reducing tobacco use.

        This prohibitionist approach is advocated by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States. They consistently oppose all commercial use of wildlife, regardless of whether such uses are sustainable, and even positive, for habitat and species conservation. IFAW’s president recently wrote an article headlined, “There’s no such thing as a Sustainable Wildlife Trade.” Now, conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund have joined forces with the prohibitionists.

        This coalition mischaracterizes the situation to rally public opinion and high-level political support in Western governments for a policy opposed to what in past years was a holy grail – sustainable development.

        The prohibitionist argument depends on six premises. (Since China is the prime recipient of poached ivory, it determines the future of elephant poaching, and the discourse below applies mainly to China.) The arguments go like this:

        1. The existence of legal ivory can be used to “launder” illegal ivory.

        2. Corruption is so widespread that no system of legal trade could ever work.

        3. Increasing ivory supply will only increase ivory demand, as demonstrated by the two “one-off” ivory sales from southern Africa.

        4. The China market is so huge that there are not enough elephants in Africa to supply demand.

        5. Banning all ivory trade will collapse consumer demand.

        6. Destroying all ivory stockpiles sends a message that poaching will not be tolerated. It makes seized illegal ivory impossible to leak into the market and it devalues ivory, lowering consumer demand.

        Let’s examine each.

        1. There are 34 legal factories and 130 legal ivory outlets in China. A relatively tiny amount of illegal ivory is mixed in with the legal ivory in these facilities and laundered. I estimate that about 99 percent of poached ivory is sold in illegal outlets, online, and through personal networks – no laundering is involved. Closing the 130 outlets and the 34 factories will simply drive some buyers into the black market system.

        2. The corrupt trade seen today developed under an international trade ban regime beginning in the mid-1990s. The African countries with the most corrupt ivory trade already have trade bans. So banning trade in more countries is not the solution. The solution involves bringing African governments into a transparent, regulated trade that confers benefits on rural people who live with wildlife. These people are the foot soldiers of poaching. If ivory and other wildlife products could meaningfully contribute to their livelihoods in a legal manner, they would be motivated to manage wildlife for the future. I advocate a system that provides incentives to obey the law, not the prohibitionist approach where the incentives are to break the law.

        The legal trade would be completely different than the existing corrupt one. Periodic auctions would be held under CITES supervision and marked tusks would be shipped directly from African government storerooms to Chinese government storerooms, avoiding all the points where bribing and laundering could occur. Maintaining the ban will only continue the corrupt illegal trade methods.

        3. The 1999 and 2008 legal ivory sales did not stimulate demand. Demand in Japan, the only country to receive the 1999 ivory, actually dropped after the sales, and it continued to drop after the 2008 sales. Ivory demand in China began to rise in 2005 after the government declared ivory carving an intangible cultural heritage and launched initiatives to promote it. Interest in ivory took off in 2009 during the global financial crisis as ivory became an investment vehicle. Concurrently, the CITES vote in 2007 to prohibit future legal raw ivory sales (until 2016 at the earliest) caused the price of ivory to spiral upward. Speculators began stockpiling ivory, expecting the price to continue to rise because of scarcity guaranteed by the moratorium. The black market ivory prices in China then spiked from $560-750 per kilogram in 2006 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014. This tripling in price contributed to the elephant-poaching crisis. The 2008 legal sale, if anything, kept the price from going even higher.

        4. One of the biggest misunderstandings is ivory supply and demand. It does not matter how many consumers want to buy ivory, any more than it matters how many people want a Ferrari. What matters is how many want and can afford to buy. If one really wants to lower consumer demand, it is imperative that mainly very expensive ivory items are manufactured. This policy cannot be implemented with a black market. Researchers have shown that the illegal sector provides the cheaper end of the market, which is much larger than the more expensive legal sector. And it is supplied 100 percent by poached tusks. It is the demand for cheaper worked ivory that causes so much poaching. Closing the legal market will not make the black market disappear; if anything, it will grow larger. People opposing ivory trade seem to forget that elephants do die naturally. There are more than enough elephants to supply a legal market from natural mortality without illegally killing a single elephant – if the ivory items are kept expensive.

        5. Would closing all legal ivory trade in China lower consumer demand? Unlikely. Most Chinese consumers already buy ivory on the black market knowing that the ivory is illegal. Why would closing the legal outlets change their ivory buying habits? They don’t shop in them now, so closing them would change nothing. Some of the consumers who shop in the legal outlets might stop buying ivory, but most would probably find illegal ivory, adding to elephant killing.

        6. The latest round of ivory stockpile destructions began in Kenya in July 2011. I was there, and I was left wondering what message was being sent. Since 2011, ivory prices and elephant poaching have risen. The intended message was not received.

        I believe that the prohibitionist ivory-trade policy has led to the elephant-poaching crisis and the deaths of 100,000 elephants in three years. It could have been avoided with a legal system of raw ivory supply to China. It is not too late to begin one.

        • Jimm

          Completely agree! Thanks Peter!

        • Deputydog

          Thank you for such a well constructed, and I guess, calculated presentation. Though counter intuitive for me, I see the argument. What bothers me is that no matter what logic is applied (either side of the argument) the people who present the problems rarely seem affected by conventional economics, nor by any sense of decency. Consequently the application of any policy seems a punt into the dark at best. There is no global compass to guide thinking here: cultural tradition in China encouraging a trade in endangered wildlife, and a 19th century gun culture that encourages the hunting of endangered wildlife. One can hardly blame conservationists for trying to do the ‘right’ thing, and I think for most people that would meant protecting the world’s wildlife for future generations. How, is clearly, not very clear!

          Another concern must be the extent to which any Ivory policy sets a precedent for other ‘trades’ – rhino horn for example, of tortoiseshell, or fur, not to forget thee whole trophy business. What bothers me is the argument that might promote a legal (in this case, Ivory) trade designed to satisfy a small high end exclusive market. This might make Ivory trade sustainable, but simply gives in to the idea of appeasing the rich greedy and selfish who will continue to exploit everything they want at whatever cost to the future.

        • Terrence

          Thanks for debunking this article. people wonder why African elephants continue being poached, despite bans and burns.

  • Even if mankind can breed them back, that is a huge portion of the gene pool gone forever.

  • Sean

    “Accurate estimates suggest that there were 12 million elephants in the early 1900s”………what I can do and should do is to suggest the author should take a little time reading any book of natural history of African elephant

    • leela

      agreed. a lot of bad data here, which people will ingest as fact.

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