New Elephant Estimate Documents Major Decline

The International Union for Conservation of Nature released its 2016 African Elephant Status Report this morning, and the results are sobering: Africa has approximately 415,000 elephants, a net decline of more than 110,000 from the beginning of 2007 to the end of 2015.

This status report attempts to establish a continent-wide estimate of elephant numbers in Africa and show where population changes are happening. This newest report is based on 275 surveys of individual elephant populations across Africa, including data from the Great Elephant Census, a major wildlife survey conducted over several years to determine the number of savannah elephants left in Africa. Unlike the Great Elephant Census, the status report includes estimates for the forest elephant populations of Western and central Africa as well as elephants in Namibia.

“This is the first African Elephant Status Report that has shown major reductions across a large part of their range,” said Chris Thouless, one of the authors of the report. Individual populations have disappeared across Africa: a dozen in West Africa, two in central Africa, and one in southern Africa, Thouless said at a press conference during CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg.

The continent-wide decline can mainly be attributed to poaching, the report says. Demand for ivory in Asia remains high, and it’s a contentious topic here at the CoP. Namibia and Zimbabwe have proposed re-opening the international ivory trade, a topic to be discussed later this week during the conference. They argue that the elephant populations in their countries are healthy enough to sustain an ivory trade. Many other African range states oppose re-opening the ivory trade, which has been banned by CITES since 1989, arguing it would only exacerbate the poaching crisis for all African elephants.

While the study’s authors would not comment on the report’s implications for the debate on the ivory trade, advocates were quick to say that the report is further evidence of the need to crack down on the ivory trade.

Demand for ivory is what’s driving the poaching crisis, many conservationists argue, and allowing any trade in ivory would only make the crisis worse.

“We’ve reached the point that if we want there to be elephants, ivory’s out,” says Sue Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit. CITES parties are required to make science-based decisions. This report, she says, provides further evidence that illegal international ivory trade and legal domestic ivory markets need to be shut down.

The report also points to the need to protect elephant habitat. “We are particularly concerned about major infrastructure developments that are cutting up the elephants’ range,” said Thouless, noting that the building of new roads in central Africa has contributed to the problem. “We must deal with this once the poaching crisis is over.”