More African elephants are being killed by poachers than are being born each year and some populations may be perilously close to extinction, according to one of the most scientific analysis yet.
The elephant population in the African continent is declining by 2 per cent a year, a number that is unsustainable, said George Wittemyer, assistant professor in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology at Colorado State University and one of the authors of the study.
“The status of the species is changing drastically,” said Wittemyer.
The proportion of elephants killed for their ivory has climbed from 25 per cent of all deaths just a decade ago to about 65 per cent of all deaths today, a percentage that could lead to the extinction of the species.
More than 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012; on average 33,630 elephants were killed each year, according to the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While it’s hard to ascertain the exact number of elephants in the wild in Africa, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has said that there are between 470,000 and 690,000. Some experts will not put it beyond 400,000.
Elephant tusk — ivory — is prized in some Asian countries, especially China, and clamping down on its trade has proven to be tough because it is fuelled by the booming middle class, which has more money to spend now, causing prices to soar. African countries have tightened security in protected areas, recruited more rangers to keep poachers at bay but the measures haven’t worked every where.
“Even heritage parks, like Garamaba in the Democratic Republic of Congo is under serious threat of illegal killings,” said Wittemyer.
The researchers used a new mathematical method based on more than a decade of studying natural deaths and illegal killings among elephants at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve to come to this conclusion.
The same method was used with carcass data from international monitors and extrapolated them across the continent.
“What came out was disastrous,” said Wittemyer. “The numbers are astounding.”
The study also found that the number of pachyderms killed in recent years is higher than previously estimated.
Data from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) show that about 25,000 elephants may have been culled across Africa in 2011 based on about four dozen sites being monitored. But this study showed that about 8 per cent of the population was killed by poachers in 2011— that extrapolates to around 40,000 elephants illegally killed when the entire continent is taken into account.
(The year 2011 is considered the worst for elephants by experts.)
Elephant deaths are not the same across the continent. The highest death rate is in central Africa while East Africa — Tanzania and Kenya — are not far behind. In South Africa, poachers have been targetting rhinos but have yet to begin killing elephants.
“The majority of populations are declining,” said Wittemyer, adding that 75 per cent of populations in Africa are on the decline. “Some we may have lost already, some will take several decades.”
There is some good news too: some populations, like in Botswana, are well-protected and safe.