Africa’s elephant population is plummeting, and the world’s appetite for their tusks is almost certainly why. Governments in Africa and elsewhere have not done enough to shut down the demand for and supply of ivory. They must be bolder.
Conservationists have been worried about the situation for years, and last week they got a clear view of how bad the problem really is, with the release of comprehensive, reliable numbers across a wide range of African countries. The “Great Elephant Census” surveyed 18 countries by plane and helicopter, finding that the continent has only some 352,000 savanna elephants left, lower than previous estimates indicated. That is a tiny fraction of the number of elephants thought to exist before Africa’s colonial period.
Because records are spotty and imperfect, it can be hard to precisely define long-term trends. So the researchers determined carcass ratios — a measure of dead animals to live ones, indicating the trajectory of a given population — in the zones they surveyed. Overall, the ratios pointed toward steep decline. Researchers also used what records they could find.
Their conclusion: The savanna elephant population is declining by 8 percent a year and dropped by 144,000 in only seven years, between 2007 and 2014. Most elephants live in preserves, which offer crucial protection in some countries. But the researchers found that, overall, protected areas are not doing enough. Carcass ratios were about as high in protected areas as everywhere else.
The story is not uniform across the continent. Some countries have stable or even rising elephant populations, in part reflecting successful anti-poaching efforts. But those positive findings were massively outweighed by big declines in places including Mozambique and Tanzania, underscoring that inadequate efforts in just a few countries can have disastrous ecological consequences.
Countries, particularly those with major ivory demand, should shut down all ivory markets where they still exist. The U.S. government took a large step in that direction this year. The Chinese government promised it would do so soon. Others, such as the Japanese, must follow, and quickly. Those who defy the law should face stiff punishments. Ivory should not be a status symbol — it should be stigmatized. African nations, meanwhile, must police their protected areas more aggressively — otherwise, they may soon find they have traded in their natural heritage for a quick, illegal buck.