By Kotie Geldenhuys
Photos by Kotie Geldenhuys; Frans van der Merwe and SanParks
It is a hot, peaceful summer's day in Africa. A herd of elephants is peacefully feeding on small bushes and trees on one of the plains while the persistent and deafening drone of the cicadas pulses through the air. With their ears flapping to keep them cool, the elephants slowly move through the savanna. Baby elephants stay close to their mothers while the matriarch disciplines the young bulls who explore the area. Then, suddenly, the peace is disturbed by tremendous noise - rattling firearms and screaming hunters who appear from out of nowhere and kill two of these jumbos for their tusks, which will bring great monetary reward.
Significant numbers of species are being lost to wildlife poaching and trafficking and in recent years the trafficking has become more organised and commercialised than ever before. The magnificent African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is one of the key species under serious threat, not only due to surges in poaching and the illegal ivory trade but also due to accelerating habitat loss. The focus of this article is on elephant poaching for the ivory trade and not on the elephant-human conflict due to the rapidly expanding human population in Africa and the ongoing encroachment of these jumbos' habitat.
The African elephant is not only the largest remaining land mammal, but is also among the most intelligent creatures with which we share the planet. It would be hard for us to imagine what a future would look like without these giants roaming the beautiful landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa. Elephants are dominant in their environment and provide a significant impact on the ecology by removing trees, trampling grass, creating watering holes and improving soil condition (www.nikela.org/how-the-african-elephant-is-important-to-its-ecosystem). Wasser et al (2010) make it clear that the loss of keystone species such as elephants impacts on the integrity of ecosystems and their contribution.
Since the European Middle Ages, African elephants have been extinct in North Africa and are only found in approximately 35 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Nelleman et al, 2013). By the end of 2013, the total African elephant population in Africa was estimated at 473 386, with four countries representing 56% of the total continental population, namely: Botswana (154 271), Namibia (16 555), South Africa (20 260) and Zimbabwe (74 928). A clear decline in the total number of African elephants was noted between 2006 and 2013. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (2016) stresses that in 2006 the population was at 555 823 and in 2013 it had declined to 473 386. Elephant presence in three countries, namely Senegal, Somalia and Sudan, remains uncertain (CITES, 2013).
Those who visit national parks in South Africa, such as the Kruger National Park, the Addo Elephant National Park and the Tembe Elephant Park, might question the relevance of this article given that these parks are home to so many elephants. The sad reality is that elephant poaching also occurs in South Africa and that it has shown an increase in the Kruger National Park.
Poaching on the rise
Ivory-seeking poachers have killed more than 100 000 elephants in Africa between 2010 and 2012 (Scriber, 2014). Nelleman et al (2013) note that there was an upward trend in both the poaching of African elephants and the illicit ivory trade, which is particularly evident from 2007 onwards. Since 2007, the illicit ivory trade grew and the amount of ivory smuggled had more than doubled - in fact, it has more than tripled since 1998.
According to the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Programme of CITES, poaching levels have been at their highest in 2011 since MIKE began monitoring the trends in illegal killing in 2001. Similarly, the seizure of large shipments of ivory hit an all-time high in 2011, indicating an increasingly active, profitable and well-organised illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. The overall weight and number of large-scale ivory seizures (more than 500 kg) in 2013 exceeded any previous year in CITES's Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) data (CITES, 2013).
It is estimated that, in 2011, approximately 7.4% of the total elephant population in 60 MIKE elephant sites across Africa were killed illegally which means that 17 000 elephants were killed in these sites alone. Moreover, in 2012, MIKE found that approximately 15 000 elephants were killed in these sites alone (CITES, 2013).