The killing of elephants continues: what can be done to stop the accelerating risk of extinction?

3 June 2015

The continued slaughter of elephants by humans and the cross-border smuggling of their ivory are endangering the existence of this magnificent species. Without concerted action and innovative techniques to stop the massacre fuelled by the greed of individuals who trade in illegal ivory, the elephant faces extinction. There is still an opportunity, however, to protect elephants from sharing the fate of animals such as mammoths and mastodons.

While combating elephant poaching is generally under the purview of wildlife services, Customs administrations are the lead agency for deterring the international trade in ivory, which is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Although deterring wildlife smuggling is on the agendas of some Customs administrations, it is not yet a high priority according to a WCO survey of Customs administrations [Han, Chang-Ryung (2014), “A Survey of Customs Administrations’ Perceptions on Illegal Wildlife Trade,” WCO Research Paper No. 34, Brussels]. The survey data also indicated that efforts to combat wildlife smuggling by Customs administrations generally rely on ordinary checks at borders rather than investigations, which may have less of an impact.

An additional challenge for Customs administrations is reducing the entanglement of corruption with the illegal trade in wildlife. As in other types of smuggling, wildlife smuggling is in some instances facilitated by corrupt government officials. The WCO has embedded anti-corruption approaches in its counter-wildlife smuggling development assistance programmes.

An important necessity in mitigating the killing of elephants is to publish and communicate objective data that empirically shows the extent of the catastrophe. An example of such research was written by Dr. George Wittemyer from Colorado State University and several colleagues, and edited by Peter M. Kareiva from The Nature Conservancy [Wittemyer, G., J. M. Northrup, J. Blanc, I. Douglas-Hamilton, P. Omondi, and K. P. Burnham (2014), “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants,” PNAS, 111: 13117-13121].

Dr. Wittemyer was recently interviewed by Robert Ireland, the WCO Head of Research and Communications.


What is the current situation for wild African elephants?

The situation is grim, as stated in our 2014 paper, “illegal wildlife trade has reached alarming levels globally, extirpating populations of valuable species.” While the global picture is bleak, we do have examples where poaching has been turned around or reduced. These models of success need to be replicated in order to end the carnage elephants are currently experiencing across much of their range.


One of the challenges faced by Customs administrations is quantifying the level of wildlife smuggling and evaluating the impact of deterrence programmes. Your research has taken an empirical approach to measuring the illegal killing of African elephants. How did you accomplish this?

As stated in our paper, quantifying illegal harvest is essential for conservation and socio-political affairs, but notoriously difficult. We combined field-based carcass monitoring with fine-scale demographic data from an intensively studied wild African elephant population in Samburu, Kenya, to partition mortality into natural and illegal causes. We then expanded our analytical framework to model illegal killing rates and population trends of elephants at regional and continental scales using carcass data collected by a CITES programme – ‘Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants,’ or MIKE.

This monitoring system provides powerful data regarding the site-specific relative causes of mortality – i.e. the proportion of illegally killed elephants that has served to indicate regional levels of illegal harvest – that can serve as a multiplier of the natural mortality rates experienced by elephants in order to derive the overall rate of population change.

While this work gives us an idea of the status of elephants on the ground, it does not ultimately provide us with an insight into the trafficking or consumption of illegal ivory, both of which are critical to address this problem. Innovative modelling by TRAFFIC (a non-governmental organization, or NGO) and academics used seizures of ivory by port authorities and Customs administrations to provide us with an insight into trafficking routes and destinations.

This work has proven incredibly important in identifying the primary exit ports of ivory off the continent of Africa as well as the primary destination ports. This can greatly help us in targeting trafficking interventions.


Can you comment on the extent of the killing levels?

Our research indicated that illegal killing levels were unsustainable for the species between 2010 and 2012, peaking at about 8% in 2011, which we estimate extrapolates to about 40,000 elephants illegally killed and a probable species reduction of about 3% that year. While 2011 appeared to be the peak, data from 2013 indicates unsustainably high rates of illegal killing continue.

However, this illegal killing is not happening equally across all sites. Rather, certain populations are being rapidly extirpated while others are demonstrating robust growth. This variation makes it difficult to give specific numbers. But our results indicate that around 70% of elephant populations were in decline over the study period, and it is likely that populations have been exterminated in the past few years.


What are the main purposes of elephant poaching and the subsequent illegal exportation of their ivory?

It is clear from seizure data that the main destinations are China and Thailand. However, determining the main use of this illegal ivory is difficult. Past research has suggested significant use in carvings and trinkets, and more recent studies suggest ivory is used in high-end art carvings and as a recession-robust investment commodity.

In line with the latter, a recent survey conducted by researchers Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne found increasing trade in raw, rather than carved, ivory tusks. The same study found the price of ivory has tripled in China over the last four years, which is a very chilling statistic given the level of pressure we have been experiencing across Africa over the last decade.


Beyond the loss of these beautiful creatures, are there other reasons why their destruction is detrimental for nature and society?

Ecologically, elephants are a keystone species, meaning their presence has a disproportionate effect on other species. They perform this role by being a critical seed dispersal agent, influencing tree density across landscapes, and maintaining grasslands where bush and forest encroachment would otherwise occur. Because of these diverse roles, we call species like elephants ‘ecosystem engineers.’

Their loss changes the ecology of landscapes and species. The fact that we are seeing massive range loss is altering the ecological dynamics, changing species composition and impacting livestock practices in huge areas. The loss of elephants can necessitate increased burning by pastoralists to hold back bush encroachment which changes carbon cycles.

But there are also enormous socio-economic repercussions as elephants are a major drawcard and component of the highly lucrative African tourism market. In multiple African nations, tourism is among the top sectors contributing to gross domestic product (GDP). Elephants, in particular, have been a critical component of community conservation initiatives which bring development and opportunities to otherwise marginalized, rural communities.


What strategies do you support for reducing poaching?

The global conservation community is in broad consensus that we need to take a three-tiered approach: field-based anti-poaching; anti-trafficking; and demand reduction. Each of these components requires innovative solutions to be addressed effectively, but we have examples of successes that can be replicated and built upon.


What strategies would you suggest for Customs administrations in deterring the smuggling of ivory?

Certainly, intelligence-based seizures have been the primary means of intervention by Customs administrations and these activities should be enhanced as much as possible. But we also need to figure out novel solutions for the mass screening of cargo and identifying suspect shipments based on registered information – type of goods, origination and destination – for targeted screening. In addition, it is important to deter corruption of and collusion by Customs officials, and to root out such problems where they occur.

Once a Customs officer seizes elephant ivory tusks, there are different views on what action governments should take. Increasingly, many governments are opting for destruction of stockpiles through incineration or crushing rather than storage. Part of the rationale is that since the damage has already been done, it is best to reduce the supply. In addition, it negates the potential for the ‘disappearance’ of confiscated ivory stockpiles, which happens from time to time. Do you have a view on what governments should do with ivory seizures, and would you suggest that Customs administrations adopt a policy of destroying seized illegal ivory?

As with any illegal goods seized in transit, the seized property should be destroyed. Without such measures, perverse incentives can emerge for the policing of illegally trafficked materials. Destruction eliminates the fear that rather than being part of the solution, Customs administrations could be embroiled in the problem. As you point out, there have been situations where seized ivory disappeared, presumably re-entering the illegal market. Accordingly, I would suggest that Customs administrations destroy seized illegal ivory as they do with illegal drugs.

I understand you were recently in Kenya. I vividly remember my bittersweet visit in 2006 to a reserve in Kenya for orphaned elephants. Can you share a little about your mission in Kenya?

I am part of the Kenya-based non-profit board Save the Elephants. We are running a number of projects across Africa and globally focused on anti-poaching, anti-trafficking and demand reduction. My most recent trip to Kenya was focused on maintaining the integrity of our long-term, individual-based monitoring project of the Samburu elephants. This project has served as a catalyst for numerous actions, scientific as well as policy-based, related to ending this elephant crisis.

While I got the opportunity to check up on the elephants we have been following closely over the past 18 years, I also was meeting with colleagues to advance our efforts on addressing the many conservation issues facing elephants today. Among other initiatives, we also kicked off an ecosystem-level radio-tracking project with the deployment of collars. I am hopeful that this project will contribute to the knowledge base on elephant populations.


Dr George Wittemyer is a Professor of Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, Chairman of the Scientific Board Save the Elephants, and an advisor to the Kenyan Wildlife Service. He obtained his PhD from the University of California (Berkeley).


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