Elephant poaching reflects an increasing trend since 2007: pound for pound the weight of discovered elephant contraband has doubled, and tripled since 1998 estimates. At the African Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) sites alone it is estimated that 25000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011. CITES status and regulation of trade has had little effect with current African elephant populations estimated at between 419 00 and 650 000, with just three countries: Botswana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe accounting for more than 50% of these numbers. In comparison, after the poaching massacre that ensued between 1970 and 1990, African Elephant numbers were estimated to be between 300 000 and 600 000; the CITES ban of 89’ in conjunction with other conservation efforts witnessed an increase in populations with estimates between 470 00 and 690 000 in 2007.
Poaching is facilitated by: conflict and resulting availability of arms; poverty; land degradation and habitat loss; human population growth; increased Asian presence in Africa - the predominant market for elephant products; and unregulated African domestic ivory markets. Elephant range and habitat loss is of particular concern, even if poaching is successfully managed and curtailed these factors are likely to continue; urban and agricultural expansion is predicted to increase exponentially into the future. Anthropogenic activities disrupt and create barriers to elephant seasonal migrations as they search for food and water, to detrimental effect - habitat fragmentation and increasing human elephant conflicts are inevitable.
Mitigation will require substantial investments and capacity development to improve the quality of protection afforded to elephant populations in Africa, including: skilled personnel; modern and sophisticated equipment to enable targeted patrol and tracking initiatives; improved management of range areas; effective and sustainable land use and planning, thus facilitating increased tolerance to elephant presence by local communities; protecting habitats; up to date census data; improved forensic abilities in identification of elephant products allowing for improved knowledge of source domains, traffic routes and market destination; implementation of mandatory inventory of ivory stockpiles; increased communication and cooperation across international boundaries; implementation of harsh penalties for any association to the trade in illegal animal products; increased education and public awareness campaigns informing people – specifically in market destinations - about the plight of the elephant and the impacts of the illegal trade in ivory; focus on policies and legislation to effectively control the unregulated ivory markets, specifically in Africa and Asia; international collaboration with the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organisation and INTERPOL; and establish and maintain funding mechanisms for the continued implementation of programmes such as MIKE, Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the African and Asian Elephant database.
Many elephant populations in Southern Africa are stable, healthy and increasing in numbers and to date have not felt the effect of the increasing trend of poaching; these “untouched” countries will have to be on their guard as previously secure populations in Mozambique, the Caprivi, and Zambia are already experiencing increases in poaching levels. When the time is right, the people of Africa will realise that the future of their continued existence is based in sustainable lifestyles, they will then benefit from lessons learnt in Southern Africa where there is evidence that both elephants and their habitats can be well managed, facilitating harmony and coexistence with mankind.
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