An unprecedented demand for ivory today has resulted in the slaughter of elephants throughout their range. It is estimated that 96 elephants were killed in Africa each day during 2012. That translates to four elephants an hour or one elephant every 15 minutes. In scarcely more time than it takes to read this commentary, one more elephant will be dead.
Fueling this devastation are greed for a rare commodity, local poverty and social disorder. Wracked by civil strife, central Africa presently finds itself amidst political chaos that has enabled people to profit from the looting of natural resources, including wildlife. At present rates of decline, forest elephants could go extinct within a decade.
Twenty three years ago, I began studying a population of forest elephants at the Dzanga Bai clearing in the southwest corner of the Central African Republic. Protection for this particular population was probably the best in the entire central Africa region, with regular guard patrols routinely confiscating arms and arresting poachers.
To get to the clearing one must walk a couple of kilometers from the local base camp along huge elephant trails stamped out over hundreds of years. After a half hour's walk through the forest, the sky lightens as the trees give way to a great clearing. Upon emerging, you may see 40 to 100 elephants at any given time – part of an estimated regional population of roughly 75,000 animals.
Having no nationality, the elephants arrive from across the larger Sangha Tri-National Protected Area, some traveling hundreds of miles. They become very excited when they recognize family members they haven't encountered for a long time. Elephants can be seen running across the clearing several hundred meters to greet each other in what are visibly emotional encounters.
In March of this year, the Central African Republic's government was toppled with the help of heavily armed rebels calling themselves Seleka. Since then, Seleka has wreaked havoc with both local people and the nation's wildlife. In early April, the rebels infiltrated the Dzanga Bai clearing, gunned down 26 elephants with automatic weapons, hacked out the animals' tusks, then vanished.
After the massacre in May. (WCS/Mike Fay)
The driving force behind the escalation in poaching is the demand for ivory in the Far East, notably from China, as well as from other areas of the developed world. The price per kilo of ivory skyrocketed in the past decade as rising incomes in these places provided more and more people with the means to purchase intricately-carved, high-status ivory objects.
Stemming the current tide of elephant poaching will be difficult. The first line of defense in protecting wildlife entails the presence of well-trained and equipped guards whose work is valued and rewarded. In all areas of Africa there are insufficient numbers of such forces. Where present, they are often poorly equipped with low morale, leaving them susceptible to corruption.
As the Dzanga Bai incident suggests, armed rebel groups are increasingly involved in the ivory trade. Writing recently in The New York Times, a former assistant to Defense Secretaries Panetta and Hagel noted that Al Shabab, the Somali group believed responsible for the recent mall massacre in Nairobi, Kenya, receives up to half its operating funds from ivory sales.
The rise of rebel groups like Al Shabab threatens regional stability and reflects a growing casualty of the ivory trade: people. Excruciating poverty exists in much of the elephants' range. Where natural resources like wildlife and minerals are not managed sustainably so that all citizens reap benefits, poverty will persist, creating further economic disparity and fueling greater insecurity.
Curbing ivory poaching requires major changes in political will. Existing wildlife laws must be enforced and perpetrators punished if poaching is to be perceived as a serious crime. Intelligence gathering is needed to determine how poaching syndicates operate. Finally, ivory destination countries must accept responsibility for driving the precipitous decline of the largest terrestrial mammal.