Elephant Population Study Reveals Impacts of Poaching

Elephant and calf in Kenya (Credit © ATE)

Some of the results of a long term study of an elephant population have just been released, revealing a clearer picture of the impacts of poaching.

As we already knew, the rate of elephant poaching has varied over time, with the notorious killing sprees of the 1970s and 1980s coming to an end following the international ban on the sale of ivory by CITES in 1989. Since then, a relatively low elephant poaching rate in most countries has been reflected by a smaller figure for annual ivory seizures by police and customs authorities worldwide. However, from approximately 2008 onwards there has been an upsurge in poaching, which many tie not just to an increasing middle class in China (among whom demand has sharply risen for ivory as a symbol of wealth and prestige), but also to legal sales of ivory which have sidestepped the trade ban and fanned the flames of not just demand but also of poaching as a result.

Repeated surveys of the same groups of animals over time can unlock powerful trends. In the case of a recent study, the fate of 934 elephants in Northern Kenya recorded over 14 years reveals an increase in the population until 2009. However, in the 3 years after that, the number of elephants illegally killed compared to those dying from natural causes doubled, with 56% dying at the hands of poachers by 2011.

The numbers of older larger-tusked males and female elephants were, as one might expect, hit hardest, with numbers spiralling over the 2009-2011 period. This caused a massive disruption on the stability of multiple family groups, with ten of fifty groups losing all their breeding females, and all youngsters under the age of 2 dying when their mothers were killed.

The researchers found that some family groups are replicating the strategy they adopted during the 1970s and 1980s, increasing their resilience to this threat by increasing the number of births.

The study also critically shows that even well protected and closely monitored elephant populations are no longer immune, with the heightened demand and price of ivory acting as the additional incentive required for poachers to judge the high risks worth taking.

We hope all these findings will not only help to make clearer what elephants are facing but also contribute to the arguments for increased protection and against any actions that could ultimately lead to even more elephant poaching. Some of these will be discussed at the forthcoming CITES meeting between 3 and 15 March 2013 in Bangkok - as-they-happen updates from this meeting will be posted here and on Facebook so keep watching! 

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