Without a ban on trade in old ivory, elephant killing continues

Elephants with big tusks are prized by wildlife watchers — and poachers. One scientist argues the only way to stop the killing of elephants is to get rid of all trade in ivory.

Rod Waddington/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

There’s a simple way to figure out how many elephants have been poached in a year. All you need to know is how much ivory was seized, and then do a little math.

The average weight of a pair of elephant tusks is 10 kilograms. But customs officials estimate they seize only 10 percent of all illegal ivory traded. So 1 kg of ivory seized equals about 1 elephant poached for its tusks.

Officials seized more than 50,000 kilograms of ivory in 2013, so that means at least 50,000 elephants were killed, Samuel Wasser, a conservation geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, noted February 14 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The number is at least in the right ballpark, he says, because a more sophisticated analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that around 40,000 elephants were killed annually from 2010 to 2012.  

There are only about 400,000 African elephants left in the world.

Last year, Wasser and his colleagues showed with DNA analysis that nearly all poached ivory could be traced to just two sources. Nearly a quarter came from forest elephants in West Africa — northeastern Gabon, northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the southeast tip of Cameroon, and the neighboring Dzanga Sangha Reserve in Central African Republic. The rest came from savannah elephants living in a swath of East Africa stretching from northern Mozambique through Tanzania (which claims it doesn’t have an elephant poaching problem). Wasser’s work is now being used to hunt down the criminal syndicates behind the poaching.

But that’s not the only way to halt the killing, Wasser argues. He wants an all-out ban on ivory trading. Currently, it is legal to trade in ivory that was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976. But that legal trade, Wasser says, makes it easy to hide the illegal trade of poached ivory. Documents can be forged, customs officials can be bribed and so forth. Recently there has been a lot of attention placed on reducing demand for ivory, particularly in China, (including an effort by basketball star Yao Ming), but Wasser notes that China is not the only problem. For instance, there is a healthy amount of trade for ivory in Japan (often on Yahoo Japan) where the substance is carved into personal seals called hankos. And there is also a lot of trade in ivory in the United States, where efforts to establish a ban have been blocked by the National Rifle Association. (The group argues that a ban would affect the buying and selling of ivory-handled guns.) A local ban on the trade, however, did pass in Washington state last year.

An international agreement in 1989 banned trade in ivory in response to rampant poaching and a sharp decline in elephant numbers. Elephant numbers began to recover, but then the ban was undermined as some countries were given permission to sell stockpiled ivory. Only by instituting a new ban, Wasser says, can the illegal trade be stymied again.

Such a ban could allow elephants to once again grow old — and grow big tusks — without risk of being shot. And a new study in the March Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology shows why old elephants are so important. Researchers studying hundreds of elephants in Kenya found that a female elephant did better as a mom if her mom was reproducing at the same time, reinforcing the evidence that elephant grandmothers are really important. 

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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