Elephants Are Worth 76 Times More Alive Than Dead

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An African elephant wades through tall grass at sunset in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. (Photo: Serge Vero/Shutterstock).

Africa's elephants are under siege. Driven by foreign demand for ivory, poachers are killing these iconic animals faster than they can reproduce. More than 120,000 African elephants were poached from 2010 to 2013, and on average, one is now killed every 15 minutes somewhere across the continent.

The motivation for this carnage is the high price of ivory: A pair of elephant tusks can bring in about $21,000 on the black market. But according to a new report by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's iWorry campaign, every living elephant can generate $1.6 million for its local economy by attracting eco-tourists. In other words, a live elephant is worth 76 times more than a dead one.

"Protecting elephants makes monetary sense," iWorry's Rod Brandford writes in a preface to the report. "Data of this type can be used to show key decision makers that elephant conservation is a far more viable economic proposition than the ivory trade. It's a powerful incentive to decision makers in charge of our natural resources to protect the species against rampant poaching."

An average elephant tusk weighs 5 kilograms (11 pounds), according to wildlife-advocacy group TRAFFIC, so iWorry estimates that a pair of tusks represents 10 kg of ivory. And since the black-market price of raw elephant ivory rose to $2,100 per kilogram this year — fueled mainly by demand in China — that means a typical adult elephant is carrying around $21,000 worth of ivory.

To calculate the value of a live elephant, iWorry examined viewing camps, safaris and photo tours in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa, where elephants drive a growing regional eco-tourism industry. When viewed through the "non-consumptive lens" of tourism, the group estimates a single elephant can contribute $22,966 per year to the local economy. And because elephants can live for 70 years, that means an average elephant can generate $1.6 million during its life span.

family of elephants
Elephant calves play at Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. (Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

This fits with mounting evidence that wildlife is often more valuable alive than dead. Unscrupulous anglers can make $108 from a single shark fin, for example, but a live shark is worth nearly $180,000 per year in tourism revenue. Manta rays are similarly worth about 2,000 times more as wild tourist attractions than as meat in a fish market. The trick is to help local people feel protective of their native wildlife by giving them a stake in it. In Rwanda, gorilla tourism fuels a $200 million industry — and communities near national parks share 5 percent of the money generated by park permits.

Of course, many of today's poachers are funded by international crime syndicates, so they may be unmoved by benefits for local economies. Better enforcement is therefore also important: Nearly 18 metric tons of illegal ivory was seized globally between January and August 2014, according to iWorry, but that likely represents just 10 percent of the actual amount trafficked. And while 1,940 elephants had to die for that ivory to hit the black market, they weren't the only victims. Elephant poaching has already cost local economies in Africa $44.5 million so far in 2014, the report estimates.

Making an economic case for elephant conservation may seem crass — after all, their intelligence and social structure is inherently worth saving, and they also play an important ecological role throughout much of Africa and Asia. But given the existential danger many elephant populations now face, Brandford argues it would be irresponsible to ignore any argument that might help slow the slaughter.

"Referring to wild animals as 'economic commodities' has created controversy in the past," he writes, "but where policy is determined by the value of an object, it’s time to give the elephant a fair footing."