Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation

The first decade of the 21st century saw African elephants dying at the hands of poachers in numbers not seen since the ivory wars of the 1980's. Between 2010 and 2012 it is estimated that 100,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory.  The underlying cause has been the escalating demand for ivory in China, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia stimulated by increasing affluence, facilitated by an expanding commercial presence in elephant range countries, underwritten by the growing involvement of international criminal organizations, and abetted by wide spread corruption in both source and destination countries.

However, the tide appears to be turning.  In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reported that over the previous five years there was a downward trend of elephant poaching, especially East Africa. According to CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon, after losing almost half its elephants, East Africa has had a steady decline in poaching since its peak in 2011.  “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.” This is based on updated reports from the CITES MIKE Programme (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) as well as updates on the conservation status of elephants provide by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Also in 2016, the United States announced a near total ban on domestic trade in ivory over concerns that the illegal ivory trade was helping fund terrorist activities.  And in response to national and international public awareness campaigns, the Chinese government announced that it would close all of its domestic ivory markets by the end of 2017.  The price of ivory has since plummeted, and other Asian countries have announced, or are considering, similar bans.

Though poaching pressures have appeared to ease in East Africa and elephant populations remain stable in South Africa, the outlook for forest elephants in Central Africa remain bleak as their populations continue to be decimated by poachers.  Overall elephant populations are still declining due to poaching, habitat fragmentation and conflict with local communities.  A record numbers of large-scale ivory seizures were reported in 2016, and there is growing concern about the shift of ivory processing to Africa for smuggling of finished products to Asia. 

As poaching pressures ease in many parts of Africa, the next challenge will be to ensure that rebounding elephant populations have the space they need to survive long term.  The fragmentation and loss of savannahs and forests makes it harder for elephants to find suitable habitat and to move across the landscape.  When wildlife corridors between protected areas are cleared, elephants are more likely to wander into farmers’ fields, where a single animal can eat or trample a small farmer’s entire holdings overnight.  Such incidents often result in retaliation by the farmers, putting both elephants and humans at risk.  Helping local communities protect their livelihoods while co-existing peacefully with a resurgent elephant population will be increasingly important.

For its part, the foundation has invested over $8 million in the past decade to help protect African elephant populations at important sites in the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Kenya and Tanzania.  There is much more to do, but the future for African elephants looks brighter today than it has for many years.

Related Links


France:  Seized Ivory Destroyed
The New York Times- 6 February 2014
"In an effort to deter poachers and traffickers, France publicly destroyed a stock of about three tons of confiscated ivory from the tusks of African elephants on Thursday, making it the first European country to take such a step."
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One man's war on the ivory poachers of Gabon
The Telegraph- 3 February 2014
"As a frenzy of ivory poaching in central Africa brings forest elephants to the brink of extinction, in Gabon a British-born zoologist has joined forces with the president to declare war on the hunters."
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A 34-Year-Old Elephant....(and the Big Life Rangers & Dogs that caught his killer) - 1 December 2013
"The four poachers thought they had timed it immaculately. As the sun was setting, they moved in on Stuart."
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