It is unknown exactly how many elephants roamed Africa prior to European colonization bringing big game hunters. However, it is estimated that between five and ten million elephants called the continent home. Then high levels of hunting and poaching through the decades brought the elephant population down to only around 600,000 in the 1980s.
In 1989, a ban on the trade of ivory came to be but despite this ban the ivory trade has continued to be a major issue globally. Within years of the ivory ban, however, elephant population numbers began to rise as poaching declined. But now a thriving ivory network between Africa and Asia is decimating elephants, as well as rhinos, as never before in recent decades.
Largely driving the demand for ivory and subsequently elephant poaching are countries in Asia with increasing wealth. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC noted that Asian syndicates are behind the growing trend of poaching in Africa of both elephants and rhinos. In addition, ivory prices have doubled in the last two years.
TRAFFIC determined that a record number of major elephant tusk seizures occurred over 2011, likely the deadliest year for elephants since the ivory ban. It is estimated that at least fifty elephants were killed in Africa each month over 2011. 2011 saw at least thirteen major tusk seizures, each with a weight of at least 1,760 pounds. This is compared to six in 2010 which only amounted to 2,200 pounds total. The number of seizures represents no less than 2,500 elephants.
The largest seizure of the year occurred this month on December 21st in Malaysia. Elephant tusks heading to Cambodia from Kenya were seized and were found to be worth $1.3 million. Unfortunately the seizures may only represent a small portion of tusks actually being shipped between Africa and Asia. Much to the dismay of conservation groups, those caught with elephant tusks are also often not arrested or prosecuted.
Despite the number of seizures and tentative estimates at the number of elephants killed for obtaining the ivory from their tusks, a charity has recently released alarming figures they believe more accurately reflects the battle against poaching. According to the charity Tusk Trust, as many as 35,000 elephants were likely killed in the year 2011 alone.
Charlie Mayhew, from Tusk Trust, highlighted that it is not just elephants being targeted when he stated: “South Africa lost 434 rhino last year. This year we know that they’ve lost more than 170 rhino. That’s more than an average of one every 15 hours and that is just South Africa alone.”
The plight of elephants and rhinos is beginning to get global attention, however, the situation is not looking very optimistic for two of the most recognizable species on the planet.