Vanishing giants: Elephant numbers plunging faster than predicted

Study shows dramatic decline in elephant numbers, mainly because of poaching for ivory

An elephant at the Tsavo east national park in Nairobi, Kenya. Elephants are hunted for their ivory tusks, which are used in unproven medicinal treatments.
An elephant at the Tsavo east national park in Nairobi, Kenya. Elephants are hunted for their ivory tusks, which are used in unproven medicinal treatments.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Africa's elephant population has plunged faster than almost anyone predicted, raising startling questions about the failure to protect one of the world's largest mammals.

There are now only 352,271 savanna elephants in nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, according to Elephants Without Borders, a research organisation that just completed an 18-country census. Between 2007 and 2014, the elephant population declined by at least 30 per cent, or 144,000, the study found.

Previous estimates had suggested that the population was considerably higher, making the results of the new study, called the Great Elephant Census, a devastating revelation.

"These dramatic declines in elephant populations are almost certainly due to poaching for ivory," the study said. "Elephant poaching has increased substantially over the past five to 10 years, especially in eastern and western Africa."

Largely because of poaching, the population is dropping 8 per cent a year, according to the Great Elephant Census released on Wednesday. National Geographic called it "the largest wildlife census in history". Most of the ivory taken from elephants ends up in Asia, where it fetches as much as US$1,000 (S$1,360)) per pound (0.45kg) and is frequently used in unproven medicinal treatments. As the Great Elephant Census researchers flew over much of Africa, they repeatedly saw the detritus of the poachers' trade - large elephant carcasses left to rot in the sun.

"Dead elephants remain visible for several years after dying," the study notes.

  • 30% Drop in elephant numbers between 2007 and 2014

    12 Number of carcasses found for every 100 living elephants - an unsustainable level.

    352,271 Remaining elephants in Africa.

Some countries were hit harder than others. In Cameroon, researchers found nearly as many dead elephants as live ones. "Of note, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania's elephants experienced staggering population declines, which were much greater than previously known and expected," the researchers said in a statement.

Mr David Banks, the Nature Conservancy's Africa programme director, said: "We knew that the situation was bad on the ground, but the results are worse than expected.

"Even if poaching is stopped cold right now, it'll take decades for populations to recover."

In some cases, human encroachment appears to have forced elephants to adapt their behaviour.

This year, an elephant named Morgan and fitted with a GPS tracking collar surprised the researchers when it entered war-torn Somalia from Kenya and managed to live. They credited its survival to the fact that it moved mostly by night, resting in thick bush during the day. "This is extreme behaviour adapted to survive the worst-known predator on Earth: man," they said.

The researchers maintain that elephants cannot survive without stronger conservation efforts.

"Worrying won't save elephants," said the president and chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Mr Cristian Samper.

"Enactment of solutions will, and we know the solutions: strong governance, funding for rangers and closing down ivory markets among them."

The findings of the census, largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, were released a day ahead of the opening of a major conservation conference in Hawaii.

More than 9,000 world leaders, policymakers and environmentalists are gathering in Honolulu for a 10-day conference of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The meeting brings together the leading minds in the conservation community to debate key issues, including illegal poaching, domestic ivory markets and sustainable agriculture.

The forum will also provide an update tomorrow of the IUCN's Red List, which records threatened and endangered species and assesses their risk of extinction.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'Vanishing giants'. Subscribe