Are Elephants Doomed?

David Berkowitz/CC BY 2.0

If you've been following ivory poaching in the news lately, you may be wondering if there is any hope at all for elephants.

Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported, "Custom officials seized 638 pieces of illegal elephant ivory estimated to be worth $1.2 million at Kenya’s main port, evidence of what wildlife officials described Wednesday as a growing threat to East Africa’s elephants."

And just two weeks ago, on January 5, eleven elephants were killed in one massacre by a gang of poachers at Bisadi area of Tsavo East National Park.

The problem is vast and complex, but part of the reason for the growing crisis is the booming economy in China. As the BBC reports:

"China is the main buyer of ivory in the world," said Dr Esmond Martin, a conservationist and researcher who has spent decades tracking the movement of illegal ivory around the world. He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted a visual survey of ivory on sale in the city of Lagos. His findings are startling.Dr Martin and his colleagues counted more than 14,000 items of worked and raw ivory in one location, the Lekki Market in Lagos.

The last survey, conducted at the same market in 2002, counted about 4,000 items, representing a three-fold increase in a decade.

It is enough to make us wonder if there is any possibility of saving elephants as a species in the face of such rampant killing and rising demand for ivory. Save the Elephants, a prominent nonprofit working to bring attention to poaching issues and Africa's elephants, just released a 14-year study of elephants in northern Kenya, concluding that adult elephants are more likely to be killed by humans than to die from natural causes.

Science Magazine reports,

"Clearly it is the most detailed and comprehensive demographic analysis undertaken for any elephant population, and perhaps any wildlife population, at least in Africa," says Norman Owen-Smith, an ecologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. It provides a base "for modeling the potential impacts of increased poaching" on other African elephant populations, which are also suffering from illegal killing.

The study notes that in 2000, there were 38 males over 30 years old in the study population, but by 2011 there were just 12, with seven males maturing into that age group. That means only five of the original 38 males over 30 years old were still alive 11 years after the study began. And by the same year, 56% of the elephants found dead (and few elephant carcasses are actually found) had been poached.

The rise in poaching is not only a concern of conservationists, but also tour operators. The loss of elephants in Kenya means a loss of revenue for people running sight-seeing and safari tours. And the businesses are responding to events like the massacre in Tsavo East National Park. AllAfrica reported this week, "The umbrella body Kenya Association of Tour Operators wants a new wildlife bill to be drafted and the government to take major steps to address the poaching menace."

blieusong/CC BY-SA 2.0

After National Geographic's impressive expose, Blood Ivory, a renewed attention has been brought to the serious issue of poaching, a problem on the rise and reaching a disturbing level of intensity as Save the Elephants has proven with their study.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Elephants have proven that they can recover their numbers if given a chance. The elephants studied by Save the Elephants experienced a small baby boom after the intense poaching of the 70s and 80s lessened.

However, the renewed pressure of poaching has stopped that rebuilding of numbers, and could have a long-term impact on the species, with the loss of important information passed down from older generations of elephants to younger generations, including where to find water, food, and other vital resources in a harsh landscape.

In a recent conversation with National Geographic, Iain Douglas-Hamilton notes that losing older elephants means the loss of the "memory bank" and a lower potential for survival for younger elephants:

Studies elsewhere in Africa show that families which lose large numbers of matriarchs do much less successfully in later life. They have a low survival rate. In the time of drought, for example, the really smart and experienced matriarchs may take their families to a completely different place, only because they’re experienced. Maybe they remember their mothers took them to a place like that when they were young. That means sometimes that they have to take a counterintuitive decision. Like maybe in a really drought-stricken area you’d have to go deeper into the worst area to get through to the other side. That’s actually happened in Tarangire, as reported in a study which showed that the really old matriarchs knew what to do. Young elephants tend to have a higher rate of survival if they have good leadership.

So, are elephants doomed? The fact is, there is hope. There is always hope. But unless something changes, and fast, to protect elephants from poaching, that hope is dying with the older generations of elephants.

The New York Times has created a landing page for all their stories on the ivory trade, making it easy to explore the issue.

Tags: Animals | Animal Welfare | Conservation

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