Andreas Späth

Elephant poaching at genocidal levels

2014-08-25 07:49

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Africa’s elephant population is in trouble. According to a new study published in the prestigious US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed illegally since the turn of the decade, driving the species into a continent-wide decline.

Is it insensitive to call this a case of genocide? Should the word be reserved for humans? By definition, it refers to the systematic destruction of all or part of a group and I don’t see why it shouldn’t apply to animal species as well as human ethnic, national or religious groups.

The results of the new study, which is being described as “the most comprehensive assessment of illegal ivory harvest to date” and “the most important publication for elephant conservation in the last ten years”, are in line with earlier research and confirm the catastrophic scale of the problem.

Taking detailed, long-term data from the closely monitored elephant population in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve as a starting point, the scientists expanded their investigation to regional and continental scales. They found a marked rise in poaching after 2008 in a trend that correlates with increasing black market ivory prices and seizures of ivory shipments destined for the Far East.

The killings reached a peak in 2011, when an estimated 40 000 elephants were slaughtered illegally across the continent. Between 2010 and 2012, some 100 000 elephants were poached and “preliminary data from 2013 indicate overharvesting continued”. Considering that the total number of elephants left in all of Africa is probably in the order of 500 000, how does one describe these sorts of figures other than as a case of genocide?

The data show that the species is in decline on the continent as a whole, not only in Central Africa, which has been most severely affected, but also in East and Southern Africa, where until a few years previously, populations were considered to be relatively stable.

The approach taken by the researchers is generally acknowledged to be fairly conservative, suggesting that the situation may be considerably worse in reality. These days, around 75% of all African elephant populations are believed to be shrinking.

According to George Wittemyer, a conservation ecologist from Colorado State University in the USA and the lead author of the paper, “what we are seeing is that there are a number of populations that are at a really high risk of being wiped out”. He believes that some of them may be completely gone within the next ten years.

Wittemyer and his colleagues use rather sobering language, explaining that “overharvesting” and current levels of “ivory consumption” are “not sustainable”. The bottom line is clear: if elephant poaching continues at current rates, the chances of long-term survival for the species are bleak.

To stem the killing spree, they suggest that “interventions are needed to tackle all levels of the supply chain and the underlying factors”. This would include concerted local conservation efforts as well as curbing demand by educating end-users of ivory in parts of Asia where it’s considered to be a status symbol and where increasing wealth is bolstering the market and driving up black market prices.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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