By Daniel Cressey
It has been a bad year for Africa’s elephants. Thousands have been killed as poachers rush to cash in on soaring ivory prices, which have reached hundreds of dollars per kilogram. The cyanide poisoning of up to 300 animals at watering holes in a game park in Zimbabwe last month served as a particularly unpleasant reminder of the lengths to which poachers are willing to go.
Official numbers for elephant killings in 2013 are still being prepared, but researchers told Nature that it is likely to be a near-record year. Across the world, almost 30 tonnes of ivory have been seized, according to events detailed in news reports and collated by TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organization in Cambridge, UK, that monitors trade in wildlife. And figures for ivory hauls in media reports collected each month by conservation group Save the Elephants, headquartered in Nairobi, add up to a similar number (see go.nature.com/4xyeln). Both numbers, however, should be regarded with caution because the size of seizures can be overestimated, and many go unreported. With each tusk providing about 5 kg of ivory, and some researchers estimating that seizures account for as little as 10% of all ivory collected, the numbers paint a bleak picture.
“I certainly don’t think anything’s got better this year,” says Holly Dublin, chair of the elephant specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Official numbers are available for 2011, when a record 46.5 tonnes of ivory was seized (see ‘Tusk totals’). Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, says that poaching levels were probably higher in 2012, and that 2013 could be higher again. He estimates that around 50,000 elephants were killed in 2011, given the amount of ivory seized, and that the numbers in the two years since were similar. Figures from TRAFFIC and Save the Elephants suggest that between 25,000 and 35,000 of the animals are killed each year.
“Those numbers may be off by some margin. But based on the number of recent seizures, the elephants are being killed at their highest rate yet,” says Wasser, who estimates from news reports that 38 tonnes of ivory have been seized this year.
The past year has seen an escalation of political efforts to curb poaching, which is increasingly being linked to large criminal syndicates and even terrorist groups. The latest such effort takes place next week in Gaborone, Botswana, under the auspices of the IUCN. African heads of state, ministers and scientists will discuss measures to fight poaching including national task forces, tougher legal action against ivory traffickers and greater use of the military against heavily armed poachers. More....