In 1979 there were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants. A decade later, widespread poaching had reduced that figure by more than half. Just 600,000 African elephants remained.
Africa’s savannahs and forests were no longer sanctuaries for elephants; they had been turned into graveyards.
In 1989, a worldwide ban on ivory trade was approved by CITES. Levels of poaching fell dramatically, and black market prices of ivory slumped.
Poaching and trading
Since 1997, there have been sustained attempts by certain countries to weaken the ban. In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an ‘experimental one-off sale’ of over 49,000kg of ivory to Japan. Then in 2002, a further one off-sale was approved, which finally took place in 2008 – and resulted in 105,000kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan.
Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade have spiralled out of control once again. In many areas, rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since 1989. In 2011, just thirteen of the largest seizures amounted to over 23,000kg, breaking all records since the ivory ban. In July 2012 CITES recognised that elephant poaching had reached ‘unsustainable’ levels, not only in small unprotected populations but also among larger populations traditionally regarded as safe.
Between October 2012 and January 2013 over a 12 week period, 12 tonnes were seized in just 4 incidents and 2013 itself witnessed the largest amount of ivory ever seized in consignments of 500kg or more.
To date, poaching and trafficking in ivory is at the highest level in 25 years. Between 2009 and June 2014, criminal networks trafficked as much as 170 tons of ivory. The price of ivory has skyrocketed from USD $5/kg in 1989 to a wholesale price of USD $2,100/kg in China in 2014, with retail prices much higher.
It is estimated that between 434,000 and 684,000 African elephants now remain, although the real figure could be lower. The most recent census estimated 352,271 African savanna elephants in 18 countries, down 30% in seven years.
In a climate where both the black market price for ivory and its demand are so high, elephants’ lives are put at risk by the mere prospect of a sanctioned sale of ivory. If the poaching of elephants and ever growing trade in illegal ivory is to be seriously addressed, part of the solution to this complex problem must be a return to the full ban on the sale of ivory established in 1989.
Other measures which must be taken with urgency include:
- Addressing the extensive involvement of international criminal syndicatesby means of strong intelligence-led law enforcement at both national and international levels along the full extent of the supply – demand chain. The effectiveness of this measure should be judged not only by ivory seizures and arrests recorded but also by convictions with proportionate penalties and the disruption of trade networks.
- Closure of all domestic (national) markets in ivory, to accompany the international trade ban instituted by CITES.
- Drastic reduction in demand in order to eradicate the market being supplied by traffickers.
The alternative to taking the bull by the horns? Some countries continue to report localised extinctions of small vulnerable elephant populations, a number of others edge closer to losing all their remaining elephants and the larger ‘safer’ populations start or continue their own downward spiral.