Customs officials in Singapore were prepared when a freighter arrived at port in June 2002. In a container from the African country of Malawi, they found what they were looking for: 532 elephant tusks and 42,120 carved ivory seals. The haul represented an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 dead elephants, valued at approximately $8.4 million. It was the largest seizure of elephant ivory recorded since the late 1980s, as well as a tragic bellwether of days to come as poachers resumed their rampage against Africa's elephants to satiate the increasing demand for ivory.
In 1989, the member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) saved Africa's elephants virtually overnight with a historic vote to ban the trade in ivory. Prior to this decision, Africa's elephants had been relentlessly pursued during the previous two decades by poachers, whose bloody rampage across the continent reduced Africa's elephant population from an estimated 1.3 million to approximately 500,000.
The ivory trade ban reduced incidents of elephant poaching to a trickle until 1997, when CITES downlisted elephant populations in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa from Appendix I to II, while also allowing a one-time sale of ivory to Japan. According to many experts, this single decision contributed to today's resurgence in elephant poaching—which is now considered equal in scope to that which was documented in the 1970s and 1980s. Based on Species Survival Network statistics, over 210,000 pounds of ivory from more than 15,000 dead elephants were seized between 1999 and 2004.
The trend in elephant poaching has only worsened since 2004, with nearly 80,000 pounds of ivory seized. Considering that only 10 percent of all illicit ivory shipments are discovered, the annual elephant death toll has been estimated to be more than 23,000 elephants. Feeding this slaughter is the profit to be made from the sale of ivory, which has increased in value from $100 per kilogram in the late 1990s to $850 per kilogramtoday.
The majority of illicit ivory is destined for the Far East, where booming economies have created new markets for ivory products. Despite laws intended to prohibit its international trade, China's increasing appetite for ivory is especially feeding that demand. But China is not alone in its contribution, as demand for ivory in Japan is also high. Indeed, even the United States remains a destination for the illegal product.
In Africa, though elephant populations continue to be persecuted by poachers, the animals' numbers in some countries may be on the rise, according to the 2007 African Elephant Status Report produced by the African Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In some cases, the alleged increases may be a product of different sampling techniques. Elephants, despite their size, are difficult to count accurately because of the vast habitats they occupy, their daily and seasonal movements, as well as agency personnel and funding limitations. Consequently, though they are improving, the accuracy of the African population estimates is up for debate.
The same problem is encountered with Asian elephants. Their population estimates range from less than 100 in Vietnam to upward of nearly 33,000 in India, yet the total count of wild Asian elephants is said to be somewhere between 38,500 and 52,500 animals, down from an estimated 200,000 in 1900. These numbers are based on 15-year-old data and are merely guesses according to a 2004 study published in Conservation Biology. In addition to discrediting the Asian elephant population estimates, this study calls into question many of the African elephant estimates, claiming they are based on data that is inaccurate and of poor quality.
Whether in Africa or Asia, nearly all elephant populations are threatened by poaching for ivory and meat, habitat loss, land clearing, ivory trade, and increasing incidents of human/ elephant conflicts. The status of elephants in both countries will be a matter of intense debate at the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties meeting in June. The member countries will have to choose between reestablishing a complete ban on ivory trade and allowing the resumption of the international trade in ivory. While a moratorium on the trade cannot bring back the thousands of elephants brutally killed by poachers, it will reduce at least one of the threats jeopardizing the survival of these remarkable animals.