National Geographic News
Photo of elephants slaughtered in Cameroon.

One of the largest mass elephant slaughters in decades took place in Bouba Ndjidah National Park, Cameroon, in 2012. Armed with grenades and AK-47s, poachers killed more than 300.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic/Getty Images

Brad Scriber

National Geographic

Published August 18, 2014

Ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years, according to a new study that provides the first reliable continent-wide estimates of illegal kills. During 2011 alone, roughly one of every twelve African elephants was killed by a poacher.

In central Africa, the hardest-hit part of the continent, the regional elephant population has declined by 64 percent in a decade, a finding of the new study that supports another recent estimate developed from field surveys.

The demand for ivory, most notably in China and elsewhere in Asia, and the confusion caused by a one-time sale of confiscated ivory have helped keep black market prices high in Africa.

The new study, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, included local and regional population estimates and concluded that three-quarters of local elephant populations are declining.

The study authors conducted the first large-scale analysis of poaching losses using data on illegally killed elephants maintained by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Wittemyer and his team hope the new information will move the discussion beyond anecdotes and wild guesses. "I think it's the only quantitatively based estimate out there," he said.

Researchers and conservationists hope the analysis will prompt policy makers to take further action to stem the years-long onslaught of poaching, which now threatens the survival of elephants in Africa.

Previous estimates of population declines produced by study co-authors Julian Blanc and Kenneth Burnham, both of CITES, used similar data to examine poaching trends, but those estimates limited the analysis to just 66 sites that were being monitored.

"Nobody's put out any scientifically-based numbers for the continent," Wittemyer said. "People have said numbers, but they're based off guesses. This is the first hard estimate we have at that level."

Photo of a boxes of ivory.
Confiscated elephant tusks and boxes of figurines carved from ivory sit in the main hall of the National Wildlife Property Repository, in Colorado.
Photograph by Kate Brooks, Redux

Targeting the Policymakers

Although conservationists have agreed for years that there's an ongoing poaching crisis with huge implications for the future of African elephants, the authors point out that it's been "notoriously difficult to quantify" the raw number of animals killed by poachers.

In recent years poachers have perpetrated mass killings, such as the 2012 slaughter of hundreds of elephants with automatic weapons in Bouba Ndjidah National Park in Cameroon.

Poachers have also used poisoned arrows to kill iconic individual elephants. In February, a poison-tipped arrow killed Torn Ear, a well-known Kenyan elephant. (See "Mourning the Loss of a Great Elephant: Torn Ear.") Three months later, Satao, another of Kenya's most beloved elephants, was also killed by a poisoned arrow by poachers, who cut off his face to remove his massive tusks. (See "Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory—'Monumental' Loss.")

These criminal acts have prompted some official actions, including a U.S. ban on the commercial trade in ivory, but the killings continue at an unsustainable level, with new births unable to keep pace with the killings.

"At the higher policy levels there have been a lot of questions and debate about what the numbers actually are, what they indicate, and how we should be interpreting them," Wittemyer noted.

"There hasn't been a robust scientific piece to rely on definitively as the source. In my mind what we've locked down here and provided the community—and in my mind we're really targeting the policymakers—are definitive numbers on which they can act and on which they can discuss and debate approaches they can take."

Hard-Won Numbers

In 2002 CITES created a program called MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) to attempt to quantify the number of elephants killed by poachers. Rangers at MIKE sites note all dead elephants they find and determine what proportion of the dead animals was illegally killed.

But the growing number of locations where monitoring is done—the program now monitors between 30 and 40 percent of the population—is still only a portion of the range of the species, and there are big differences in how closely these sites are monitored.

Another problem is that no one knows how many African elephants there are. Elephants are present over many thousands of square miles, which makes it expensive and time-consuming to estimate their overall numbers.

A map of elephant range and poaching statistics.
VIRGINIA W. MASON AND BRAD SCRIBER, NGM STAFF
SOURCES: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY; SAVE THE ELEPHANTS; MONITORING THE ILLEGAL KILLING OF ELEPHANTS (MIKE); DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD; KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE; DIANE SKINNER, AFRICAN ELEPHANT SPECIALIST GROUP, IUCN.

The most recent comprehensive population estimate for the continent—a range of between 472,000 and 690,000 elephants—was published in 2007 by the IUCN's African Elephant Specialist Group. That figure was based on the best available data at the time, which for some locations were already nearly a decade old.

The African Elephant Specialist Group continually collects updated population survey data for portions of the continent and shares them with researchers via its public database. But it has yet to produce a new comprehensive population estimate for the continent. Meanwhile, a continent-wide aerial survey, the Great Elephant Census, is under way, with results expected in mid-2015.

Modeling the Numbers

For their study, Wittemyer and his co-authors used the most recent population numbers available from the African Elephant Specialist Group database for well-monitored locations. The researchers calculated that in the absence of poaching, about 3 percent of an elephant population would be expected to die each year.

Applying the percentage of deaths from poaching in 2010 through 2012, derived from MIKE data at the most closely monitored sites, they were able to calculate the percentage, and the numbers, of elephants poached regionally and continent-wide.

Kenneth Burnham, the statistician with the MIKE program who devised this method, used a similar approach to project the number National Geographic magazine used in its October 2012 cover story, "Ivory Worship." The magazine reported that "it is 'highly likely' that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants in 2011. The true figure may even be double that."

The new study puts the 2011 number at 40,000 elephants slaughtered at the hands of poachers.

Trevor Jones, of the Southern Tanzania Elephant Project, who didn't participate in the study, said, "I think this paper represents an honest attempt to interpret the MIKE data, and no doubt its results and conclusions are broadly correct in describing an overall trend of large declines in elephant populations across Africa."

He points to continued misgivings about the MIKE numbers because they are based on a smaller number of carcasses than aerial surveys. "Aerial censuses of the Selous Game Reserve," Jones said, "estimate a decline from 2009 to 2013 of 39,000 to 13,000—yet the MIKE data estimate 4,931 elephants poached from 2010 to 2012."

Jones, like many others, is eager for the results of the forthcoming Great Elephant Census. "The best way to update data on population sizes in most areas is by aerial sampling, and I strongly suspect that the census is going to confirm the unprecedented scale of the current crisis for elephants across the continent. Those results cannot come a day too soon."

But aerial surveying has drawbacks too. Forest elephants can't be seen from the air, and assessing their numbers takes labor-intensive foot surveys of dung piles. A recent forest elephant survey took "80 foot-surveys; covering 13,000 km; 91,600 person-days of fieldwork," according to the study abstract.

What We Lose When We Lose Elephants

The huge scale of the losses of African elephants could reduce genetic diversity to the point where healthy and robust populations become dangerously weakened.

But, as Wittemyer said, the problem is greater than genetic diversity. "You're talking about the distribution of species and its ecological role."

Elephants are vital to the web of life in Africa. As a keystone species, they help balance all the other species in their ecosystem, opening up forest land to create firebreaks and grasslands, digging to create water access for other animals, and leaving nutrients in their wake. Sometimes called the "megagardeners of the forest," elephants are essential to the dispersal of seeds that maintain tree diversity.

Since three out of four local populations are declining, those losses have serious ecological implications. "That's a problem we probably didn't speak to strongly enough in this paper," Wittemyer said.

Follow Brad Scriber on Twitter.

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70 comments
Kevin Durden
Kevin Durden

POACHER SHOULD STOP KILLING THEM JUST FOR MONEY


Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

No offer no demand. Stop yvory trading

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

SOME HUNDREDS OF IGNORANT, SELFISH AND STUPID PEOPLE ARE DOING THIS. PLEASE DON'T BUY ANY YVORY ITEM, NEVER.

Saif Islam
Saif Islam

kill those poor silly uneducated Africans and save the species which are more important to the ecosystem. Humans spread diseases and more harmful to the environment. Easy.

Shannon Simpson
Shannon Simpson

Hundreds of thousands of those who perpetuate these horrors on voiceless animals should be eliminated instead ... leaving more natural room for the animals to roam and that many less threats to their rights to live too.   How would these people feel if they and their families were hunted for something they had.    Stop this madness!

Jai Singh
Jai Singh

Here are my Inputs on this matter, I hope they are of use....

Need to spread the message that the tusks, rhino horns or any part, organs have no magical powers.

A documentary in multiple languages should be made with scientific evidence that the animal products are useless for their conditions.

A fake Research by a Prominent NGO should be spread out that those who consume wildlife products will suffer from cancer as the animal products have lost their efficacy and it is thus waste of time, money and energy.

Alternatives to the animal products should be developed and advertised to have the same effects as those of the animal counterparts.

Pamphlets, Ads showing the uselessness of animal products should be spread relentlessly so that it gets embedded in the minds of those who consume it.

Laws should be made even stricter so that those who indulge in this business fear such acts.

A census of people living in the area where poaching is rampant should be conducted and they should be provided with food on daily basis through charity, donations and NGO’s.

A pension scheme should be launched for forest guards which would carry on to their dependants so that they are insured of income even after their death. This can attract unemployed and needy to join fight against poaching. Same can be offered to hunters, poachers who would join the forces.

Those who reside in forest should be relocated to cities with permanent quarters to live and provided jobs which they can do or should be providing training so that they can get employed.

The countries which are main markets of animal products should be highlighted in the Media, thereby gathering public protest or boycott these by not buying their stuff.

People belonging to hard core consumers of wildlife products should not be given permission to enter wildlife reserves, sign boards of such can be displayed on the entrance gate to advertise what is going on?

Infra red equipments should be provided to the guards and other personnel so that they can outwit their opponents.

Hunter families should be identified and neighbours can be paid to provide information so that one can get to know the strategies.

Core areas should be identified and a safe passage should be created.

Poachers should be identified and their posters should be posted on various important places to make them conscious of their work and it would also bring awareness among the masses about such people.

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

Obscene, obscene - obscene!!! One of many travesties over the last 25 years, the result of a misguided focus on co2 as the primary environmental concern.

Polar bears, computer models, failed projections and no warming since the late 90's. An entire generation, clueless - the environment seriously degraded over this period.

Fernando Da Silva
Fernando Da Silva

That's really sad. Just come back from Mozambique! Strongly believe that the Chinese are involved in the killings. 

Michael Hardy
Michael Hardy

"People have said numbers, but they're based off guesses."

This is the second time I've seen someone who appeared to be a full-fledged adult say "based off" instead of "based on".

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Africa's population has been projected to reach 2 BILLION by mid-century. Care to guess the status of African wildlife if that comes to pass? Human birth control is the only thing that can really reduce the growing pressure on nature. As a means to that end, the global economy needs to become a steady-state system and abandon growthism based on financial debt and the cannibalization of nature.

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

The price animals and environment in general pay for our wants rather than need! In the end, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Scientists are modeling many of the new inventions on nature because the perfect design already exists there. So losing countless species means we are losing that much 'natural information' that could have been useful. 

Rishabh Singh Loomba
Rishabh Singh Loomba

Problem with our World is uncontrolled Industrialization, Commerilisation and Urbanization leading to Wealth disparity, Unemployment, Poverty and frustration mainly in the rural World. Crime and Criminals are a by product of this. The rural World needs to be strengthened by multiple alternate employments that take the work back from machines and give it back to Humans hands. Have we realized why man was not poaching so viciously 100  years back? Cloth weaving, Soap, Juice, Salt, Food products etc making should all be given back to Human hands. 

This World has so many things going wrong, that no small measures will work.

The World does not need Mass Production, It needs Production by Masses!

When a hand is occupied and a tummy is full, man will be less vulnerable to Crime.

Sadly Animals and Planet Earth are paying for our 'Wisdom'.

Carolyn Hyppolite
Carolyn Hyppolite

What we lose when we lose elephants are elephants. We lose amazing creatures who feel joy and feel pain because humans value something as insignificant and frivolous as figurines over something as immeasurably wonderful as the life of an elephant. That's what we lose.

Nick Silverstein
Nick Silverstein

We as a species don't deserve our place on this planet! We talk about how bad it is that we are killing animals who have as much right to live on the planet as we do but what do we actually do to stop it? Very very little. Why not just start killing the poachers on site? Why not make it that anyone who is found travelling in the areas where elephants live and hasn't got a permit or has authorisation to be there is instantly classed as a poacher and shot?

Seriously, why not? Oh because that would upset the people who think that humans (the real parasite of this planet) have more of a right to life than the animals who also belong on this planet.

Diane Willey
Diane Willey

Can getting the group " Save the Elephants"  more support help with putting more HONEST rangers on the ground. Does anyone know anything about this group and if they are making any progress or accomplishing anything. 


I agree with encouraging trying something ,also, at the policy level if governments could put pressure on China and Thailand to prosecute and criminalize trade and POSSESSION of  Ivory - if these government, and It would have to be government with power like China really cracking down then there might be something done. By just criminalizing the sale of Ivory once it's sold no one can do anything, but to crack down on possession as a crime we might have a chance. Even the US should do this.

Joel Bhatt
Joel Bhatt

Dear God, I knew it was bad but not that bad.

rajesh mohanasundaram
rajesh mohanasundaram

Thank you for throwing light on this disturbing trend.  I really wish something can be done quickly.  a) At policy level - govt to govt somehow bring a total ban on Ivory.  This is extremely difficult due to economic dependency on countries like China, who are the consumers of ivory and animal products.  b) Creating social programs that rely on elephant being alive - basically a free living elephant generates revenue for the local (tourism? research?). c) Creating awareness among people in general. Repeated posts from NG or BBC creates awareness - certainly there is content on how elephants communicate, disperse seeds, bring ecological balance and issues like this.  How do you answer when someone says hundreds of thousands of human lives are lost - so where is your voice for them?  I try to be educative.  I am sure NG can definitely contribute in all these aspects.  

Aren't these elephants tagged with GPS and can be tracked real-time?  

The trend of increasing poaching of elephants and rhinos and perhaps many flora/fauna that are not tracked as much is alarming and heart-wrenching. 

Keith Mailhotte
Keith Mailhotte

My solution is FAKE IVORY, sell fake ivory to the ones poaching to resell , the Chinese do it all the time to others , including art, combining Chinese Truffles with English Truffles unknowingly to the consumer. ect. Everyone wins no one or animal gets hurt.

Brad Scriber
Brad Scriber

We'd love to hear from more of you about your ideas of what might curtail illegal killing of elephants. Keep the ideas coming and we'll ask experts to weigh in on some of what you suggest.

Cecilia Staunton
Cecilia Staunton

I am sure the Chinese would get mad if panda parts became desirable. Africans need to get mad but that is hard to do when you are hungry and desperate. Such a complicated issue and I am so sad about it and feel helpless.

Brad Scriber
Brad Scriber

Thanks for your comments, everyone. There are some great suggestions from many of you about what might stop this poaching crisis and reverse the disturbing trend. Stay tuned for a forthcoming piece that will share some experts' takes on several of these proposals and other approaches that have been suggested elsewhere.

Theja Ganesh
Theja Ganesh

African govt and international wildlife conservation team should take action.

lin hai
lin hai

I just watched some documentaries about the illegal widelife killing.It's so disgusting.

Guy Pant
Guy Pant

Most of that ivory from poachers is going to be wasted again.  China confiscated and destroyed 6 tons of ivory earlier this year.

Monika Mitchell
Monika Mitchell

I wish there were more high-profile and circulated group-fund options out there !!!!


I'm going to make a concerted effort to search-out the best fundraisers and contribute, and I genuinely hope you all do too. Even if it's only what you spend on lunch normally.


Elephants are so holy, intuitive, and compassionate. They blow me away with their intelligence, unique personalities/character, and love/sorrow for their kin. They just really resonate something special in their soul!  sorry to get too esoteric....but!


I'm glad this unreal ratio of slaughter is becoming higher profile in the media.


BUT: there needs to be better fundraising options and awareness out there. Period.  


How else to help educate (or create economic alternatives for) the populations producing poachers?  To fund those protecting the elephants??????


I wish there was more World citizens could do. 

Greg Fietz
Greg Fietz

Why do you all avoid the real problem. HUMANS--TOO MANY OF THEM on this finite planet. Sure get ruthlessly tough on the poaching problem, but the REAL CAUSE has to be at least mentioned to educate the masses that they are the root of the problem. Not just Africans and the Chinese buying the ivory products, but also all the West First World countries buying and loving, the cheap Third World goods which gives them  the ever increasing purchasing power to buy the beautiful ivory products. 

This whole wonderful planet is being destroyed by all sorts of things--Volcanoes/Asteriods/SolarFlares/etcetc, but too few mention the one destructive force which we CAN control, the WORLD WIDE HUMAN PLAGUE. 

Tory Braden
Tory Braden

If efforts are not stepped up to pressure China to take responsibility and shut down its 37 massive carving factories churning out thousands of ivory items, the elephants will not make it.  The carvers pay the poachers. The trade stops at the factory door when the poachers don't get their money. We need to name names, Zhao Shucong licenses those factories and could retool them to carve in resin. The Chinese consumer will continue to buy ivory, but only if there are ivory items to buy, most do not care that elephants die. Carving is the engine that fuels the trade, and why this activity has not been recognized as such I am not sure. . There are too many people who don't care that elephants go extinct in order to have artifacts in their homes. That is why there needs to be no artifacts carved in the first place. Poachers are few and far between in the wilds of African, but those factories are there causing their devastation to this species. #ChinaStopCarving

Sonia Panday
Sonia Panday

@Saif Islam You people perpetuate violence like it's the norm. KILL KILL KILL... Start with yourself please. Thank you :)

Sonia Panday
Sonia Panday

@Saif Islam It seems you are the uneducated, misinformed one. Perhaps read the article first (If you can read) and then make a comment (If you have something intelligent to say) Otherwise shut your trap. It has nothing to do with disease and everything to do with poaching. DUH.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Rishabh Singh Loomba We also need to reduce those masses with a lot more birth control. We can't keep adding the equivalent of 1,000 football stadiums of people each year to a finite planet while expecting nature to not be cannibalized.

Gary Bruce
Gary Bruce

@Nick Silverstein Sing it Sister!  I myself could not have said it any better. Though the planet would recover and thrive without us humans around, it really comes down to just a small percentage of the human population that is the main cause of all of this. It's the money and greed that drives it. It's our leaders who won't do anything about it. If every country banned ivory, we could stop having this conversation. I don't know what the solution is. All I know is that if we don't stop it soon, we are all doomed. Hence, the earth is saved. Everything will die off, but the planet will eventually recover and thrive because we won't be here to destroy it 

rajesh mohanasundaram
rajesh mohanasundaram

@Keith Mailhotte Shhhhh!!!! :-)  the problem with this approach is that it will drive up the value of real ivory. It is similar to selling sustainable plant products - the wild poached plants get mixed into it.  A total global ban making it illegal to possess ivory will provide some restrain.

Mark Aaron
Mark Aaron

@Keith Mailhotte I had the same idea, surely someone can produce a very good facsimile with all the high tech research going on with metamaterials.  it would make tons of money for the company that makes a tusk indistinguishable from the real thing.

Mark Aaron
Mark Aaron

@Brad Scriber a meta-ivory faux tusk indistinguishable from a real one would be a win win win.

Gary Bruce
Gary Bruce

@Brad Scriber


Thank you for the story and conversation that you put together, albeit sad and disturbing. I wish I knew the solution. It's the money and greed that drives it. It's our leaders who won't do anything about it. If every country banned ivory, we could stop having this conversation. Well, maybe not. But it's a good start. I suppose all of us should boycott all products that come from these countries that still trade in ivory. If money drives the problem, than money could stop it as well. When Americans cry foul at Japan re: whale slaughters, then stop buying Japanese cars, etc. But we always seem to cave. It's sooooo sad. :(

Tim Smith
Tim Smith

@Greg Fietz "This whole wonderful planet is being destroyed by all sorts of things..."

No it isn't. Get back under your rock. Idiot.

craig hill
craig hill

@Greg Fietz Not exactly. Without the market for ivory, there could be three times the population of humans there and the elephants could conceivably thrive. There had to be an ivory market for this slaughter to begin and continue.

Don Buck
Don Buck

@Tory Braden

Who or what is Zhao Shucong? Who are the 37 carving factories? Please cite an article or book in English which describes this system. Thanks

Val Taylor
Val Taylor

@Tory Braden I agree with your viewpoint 100%. Having lived and worked in Africa, we are all too familiar with corruption in high places .  This, combined with the astronomical figures ivory can fetch, is a sure and certain death sentence for the remaining elephants.  The only way to stop the killing is to get rid of the demand and the first step on that road is closing the carving factories.  How that can be accomplished I have no idea since obviously, many people are employed in them and they must be a source of income for many many people.  

You are so right - too many people neither know or care about the slaughter that is happening.  Most people in the world will never have even seen an elephant in real life so why should such a creature be important to them.  

Education and mass publicity, especially by celebrities would seem to be the way forward as so many people in First World countries seem fixated on celebrities and hang on their every movement.  If these people would focus on a serious problem like the extinction of the elephants instead of the size of their backsides and how they look, we might get somewhere.

I heard Leonardo de Caprio is investigating the possibility of doing a big movie with the elephant slaughter/extinction as the main plot.  Hope this is so and that more "stars" get on board, especially Chinese ones.

Benson Stein
Benson Stein

@Gary Bruce @Nick Silverstein  "Though the planet would recover and thrive without us humans around"

This indeed could qualify as the most idiotic statement I have read on the Internet in the past year. 

Tim Smith
Tim Smith

@Benson Stein @Gary Bruce @Nick Silverstein "...the most idiotic statement I have read..."


When I read all the entries here I think of Charlie Sheen's bucket challenge. When you people post here do you leave feeling like you've "made a difference?"

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