Is it too soon to celebrate? Elephant poaching in Africa is on the decline but population numbers are also.
A new report by the Convention in the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) shows that in 2016, the overall trend of elephant poaching in Africa has in fact declined. The downside is that conservationists warn the decline in poaching is not – yet – showing an increase in population numbers.
Wildlife investigative journalist Adam Cruise, writing for Conservation Action Trust (CAT), quotes Georgina Lamb, Programs and Policy Manager at David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), an organisation funding conservation projects in Africa who says while headline news statements from a CITES hails a decline in elephant poaching in Africa “we should proceed with caution on any early day celebrations. Overall elephant populations, from a continent-wide perspective, are still tragically in decline and at an alarmingly unsustainable rate meaning the race for survival is far from over”.
The CITES report admits that “Africa’s elephant populations continue to fall due to continued illegal killing, land transformation and rapid human expansion” while the Great Elephant Census reported last year that the population of African elephants has declined by 30% in just seven years. Overall elephant populations have likely to have continued to drop in 2016, according to DSWF.
At the same time, writes Cruise, 2016 recorded the highest level of seizures of illegally traded ivory by weight since commercial international trade was banned by CITES in 1989. And even though domestic legal ivory markets around the world are being closed and ivory prices are dropping, ivory processing in Africa for smuggling of finished products to Asia is still on the rise.
The seemingly contradictory figures in the report are based on new analyses of the CITES MIKE Program (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). The two CITES programs base their findings on information on poaching collected by ranger patrols in only 60 MIKE sites across the entire continent.
On a gradual decline
According to the analysis, the overall trends in the poaching of African elephants revealed a sharp increase since 2006. Poaching elephants apparently peaked in 2011 but since then has stabilised and poaching is now in a ‘gradual decline’.
For example, the number of elephant carcass records from three MIKE sites in Tanzania, which has lost 60% of its elephant population since 2008, dropped by half in 2016 compared to 2015. A similar decline was recorded from a single site in Kenya.
John Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, said that in “Eastern Africa…the analysis from 2016 concludes that overall poaching trends have now dropped to pre-2008 levels. This shows us what is possible through sustained and collective front-line enforcement and demand reduction efforts, coupled with strong political support.”
In southern Africa, Botswana still has the largest elephant population of any country in Africa, with over a third of the continent’s population, while, according to the report, elephant numbers in Namibia and South Africa have increased.
Central and West Africa – danger zone
In Central and West Africa, the levels of poaching remain dangerously high. In the last decade, according to the Great Elephant Census, elephant numbers have crashed to unsustainable levels in the Democratic Republic and Central African Republic and in some countries like northern parts of Cameroon elephants have almost become extinct.
In Zimbabwe, there has been a rise in cyanide poisoning of elephants in Hwange and much of the Zambezi Valley elephants have been declining dramatically. Mozambique has lost over half its elephants in the past decade, while areas in Zambia and Angola have recorded the highest carcass ratios – 75% dead to 25% live elephants.
Also, in contrast to the slight downward trend of elephant poaching, the analysis shows that in 2016 nearly 40-tons of ivory were seized globally. It is the largest number of illegal ivory seizures ever recorded. The overall weight of seized ivory in illegal trade is now nearly three times greater than what was observed in 2007.
“The upward trend in the amount of illegal ivory seized as compared to the gradual downward trend observed for elephant poaching since 2011 may reflect a scaled-up enforcement effort by customs and police and a more vigilant transport sector” says Scanlon. “There could also be time lags between poaching elephants and trafficking their ivory, or the entry into the illegal trade of ivory stockpiles.”
However, there is a growing concern and increasing evidence of more ivory slipping through undetected. According to the CITES report, ivory is being processed in Africa into carved objects by Asian nationals. These are being exported into smaller volumes carried through air check-in and carry-on luggage or couriers. This, says the report, “could potentially pose a serious threat, and adequate enforcement efforts to stem this illegal flow are to be deployed.”
“We should not underestimate the continued pressure and sophistication of poaching and trafficking rackets across the continent,” cautions Lamb, “ivory seizures are at their highest with record numbers of large-scale seizures intercepted despite growing international pressure and restricted trade legislation.”
The report will be analysed at the CITES Standing Committee at its forthcoming meeting in Geneva in November 2017. “DSWF will be fielding a team of experts at the meeting,” says Lamb, “where we will continue our fight on behalf of all African elephant population.”