(A) Estimated natural (gray line) and illegal killing (red line) rates (with 95% confidence interval) contrasted with local prices of ivory (black line) to the poachers in the Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem. (B) Mass of annual ivory seizures in Kenya (no data in 2005–2006) and the proportion of seizures destined for China (including Hong Kong). Data is represented by a black or gray '×.' Graphic: Wittemyer, et al., 2014

By Jeremy Hance
19 August 2014

(mongabay.com) – Around 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers for their ivory on the African continent in just three years, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Between 2010 and 2012 an average of 6.8 percent of the elephant population was killed annually, equaling just over 20 percent of the continent's population in that time. Elephant deaths are now exceeding births, which on average are 5 percent annually.

"We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent," lead author George Wittemyer with the organization Save the Elephants told the BBC, noting that old elephants are often the first killed. Elephants are being killed for their ivory, which is then smuggled abroad to mostly to China, but also to Thailand, the Philippines, Europe, and the U.S.

Unfortunately data on elephant populations across Africa is uneven and in many places scant, making continent-wide estimates like these difficult. In this case, the researchers used some of the best studied populations in Samburu, Kenya to determine how many elephants were dying of natural causes versus poachers in the site. They then used two different methods to extrapolate this data.

In the first they employed good data in 12 sites across Africa to estimate the total poachers' butcher bill over the last few years. In the second, they used computer modeling to estimate poaching levels at 306 sites. Both methods came to similar numbers: 101,784 elephants killed versus 99,997 elephants, respectively over three years. […]

The conservationists told the BBC that if rates don't slow, the African elephant could be extinct within a century. Complicating matters, is recent evidence that there are actually two, not one, species of elephant on the continent. A 2010 study found that forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis)—smaller, sporting straighter tusks, and residing in rainforests—are as distinct from their savannah cousins (Loxodonta africana) as Asian elephants are from woolly mammoths. Yet, forest elephants are rushing faster to extinction than savannah elephants. A study last year estimated that 62 percent of forest elephants had been slaughtered by poachers between 2002 and 2011. [more]

20 percent of Africa's elephants killed in three years


ABSTRACT: Illegal wildlife trade has reached alarming levels globally, extirpating populations of commercially valuable species. As a driver of biodiversity loss, quantifying illegal harvest is essential for conservation and sociopolitical affairs but notoriously difficult. Here we combine 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 expand our analytical framework to model illegal killing rates and population trends of elephants at regional and continental scales using carcass data collected by a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species program. At the intensively monitored site, illegal killing increased markedly after 2008 and was correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China. More broadly, results from application to continental data indicated illegal killing levels were unsustainable for the species between 2010 and 2012, peaking to ∼8% in 2011 which extrapolates to ∼40,000 elephants illegally killed and a probable species reduction of ∼3% that year. Preliminary data from 2013 indicate overharvesting continued. In contrast to the rest of Africa, our analysis corroborates that Central African forest elephants experienced decline throughout the last decade. These results provide the most comprehensive assessment of illegal ivory harvest to date and confirm that current ivory consumption is not sustainable. Further, our approach provides a powerful basis to determine cryptic mortality and gain understanding of the demography of at-risk species.

Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants

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