Dear EarthTalk: Are elephant populations stable these days?
-- Reuben Perrin, Hartford, CT

Far from it. The double whammy of poaching (illegal hunting) and habitat loss has led to a dramatic decline in populations of both African and Asian elephants in recent decades. In 1930, there were between five and 10 million wild African elephants, plying the entire African continent in large bands. Just 60 years later, when they were added to the international list of critically endangered species, only about 600,000 were scattered across a few African countries. Today that number is likely less than 500,000.

While Asian elephants were never as numerous as their African counterparts, their population numbers have also dropped precipitously, from an estimated 200,000 a century ago to less than 40,000 today. Conservationists fear that unless demand dries up for ivory, and people stop moving into prime elephant habitat, the world’s largest land mammal could become just a memory within another hundred years.

Putting an end to habitat loss may be next to impossible as more and more people vie for fewer and fewer resources and move out further into the countryside, so conservationists working to save elephants tend to concentrate on reducing or eliminating poaching. While trophy hunting of elephants may have been big decades ago, today most elephant hunters are after the ivory in the tusks, which have been a hot commodity across Asia for years as raw material for highly prized and often ornate carvings. Despite elephants’ inclusion in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1990—meaning the sale of tusks and other elephant parts is a violation of international law—poaching is bigger business than ever, with prices for ivory rising more than 16-fold in recent years.

Some countries, such as Tanzania and Kenya, are working hard to hold up their end of the CITES agreement, hiring patrols of young men—some of them former poachers themselves—to monitor local elephant populations and enforce national and international laws against killing these and other endangered species. Conservation groups like the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working hand-in-hand with local officials to improve elephant habitat and keep poachers at bay. These organizations hope that the people in these regions can learn how to bring in revenues from tourism instead of hunting.

But elsewhere governments are not as committed to the ivory ban, let alone to following laws imposed by outsiders. Government officials in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, for example, argue that trade in ivory should be regulated, not prohibited. They maintain that countries that are managing their elephants well should be allowed to sell ivory in order to pay for conservation measures.

In part to test such waters, the first legal sale of ivory in a decade took place in October 2008, despite protests from conservationists. Buyers, mostly from China and Japan, eagerly snatched up some 100 tons of stockpiled elephant tusks—no elephants were killed recently or illegally for the sale—with the proceeds going to groups working to save the elephant and its habitat. But with the legal ivory sale has come an uptick in elephant poaching, leaving conservationists with that “one step forward, two steps back” feeling.


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