Elephant Declines Vastly Underestimated

Picture of poached elephant foot
Vulture faeces stain another victim of poaching in Ruaha-Rungwa in southern Tanzania. (Photograph by the Udzungwa Elephant Project)

By Trevor Jones and Katarzyna Nowak

Earlier this month, international media ran with a major prediction released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that “one-fifth of Africa’s elephants could be wiped out in the next ten years, at current poaching levels.

This is a damaging underestimate that undercuts the seriousness of the current disaster, and the efforts being made to turn the situation around.

Given the widespread killing of elephants for their tusks over the last five to ten years, and the paucity of accurate and up-to-date surveys of elephant populations across Africa, it is very difficult to make regional estimates of total numbers and projections for the future, let alone for the whole continent.

However, let us consider some of the solid information that has been provided recently in peer-reviewed articles and reports by in situ scientists.

Bulls stroll past a camera trap in Ruaha National Park. (Photograph by the Udzungwa Elephant Project)

Severe Declines

In Tanzania, which until recently harbored the continent’s second largest number of savanna elephants (after Botswana), the results of an aerial census of the Selous ecosystem carried out this October have just been announced—at the 9th Scientific Conference of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), held December 4-6 in Arusha.

The Selous ecosystem (31,040 square miles) is Africa’s largest protected area and holds East Africa’s greatest elephant population. In the early 1970s, it was estimated to exceed 100,000 elephants, but by the end of the last great ivory poaching crisis in the late 1980s, the number had fallen to about 20,000.

Following the global ivory trade ban enacted in 1989, the population recovered to about 55,000 elephants by 2007—when the current wave of killing escalated. By 2009, Selous elephants were down to about 39,000.

The latest, recently announced population estimate is 13,084. This indicates an unprecedented decline of nearly 80 percent over the last six years.

We await with trepidation imminent results from East Africa’s second largest population, Ruaha-Rungwa (13,384 square miles), also in southern Tanzania, where large numbers of fresh carcasses are reported from Rungwa Game Reserve and parts of Ruaha National Park.

The picture is likely to be equally grim in western Tanzania (Katavi-Rukwa, Ugalla, Moyowosi-Kigosi), where demographic surveys in 2009-10 indicated poaching pressure similar to or worse than in the Selous.

In Central Africa, an extensive study bringing together survey data from 80 sites estimated a 62 percent decline in the forest elephant from 2002-2011—and these data are already two years out of date.

Picture of elephants by the river
Elephants in the Ruaha riverbed. (Photograph by Trevor Jones)

Southern Herds are Increasingly Vulnerable

Southern Africa has not been hit as hard as the rest of the continent—yet—but all reports indicate that the situation is worsening.

Poaching is heavy in Mozambique and is now affecting South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is partially contiguous with Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park as part of the transboundary Peace Park.

In October, more than 300 elephants died of cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe.

As East and Central Africa become drained of their elephants, it is reasonable to expect poaching syndicates to increasingly focus on the southern populations.

The IUCN press release came from the International Elephant Summit convened last week in Gabarone, Botswana.

What is happening in this hugely important country for elephants is not clear, but President Khama, in his welcoming address to delegates, struck a tone that was both poignant and more realistic than that of the IUCN: “Africa’s human and natural resources have been pillaged and plundered for generations by people from far off lands. From slavery to archaeological artifacts, minerals, fauna and flora, the continent and its people have for so long been victims of other continents’ selfish interests, and today it is continuing…our elephant ivory and rhino horn are going to countries where they are used for God knows what! Only to satisfy ridiculous outdated beliefs whilst we remain with carcasses, as proof we once owned these magnificent animals.”

Misleading Figures

So what was the IUCN prediction based on?

It appears to be based on a combination of analysis of carcass data from the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program and continent-wide population estimates as presented by IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) in the African Elephant Database (AED).

While the MIKE database aims to indicate levels of poaching at 42 sites around the continent, with the exception of a small number of well-monitored areas (notably Laikipia-Samburu in Kenya), monitoring effort and reporting levels are generally inadequate, and these data must be treated with great caution.

While the AED collates population estimates from scientific surveys, the majority of these are now significantly out of date given the current rapid rates of decline demonstrated in Selous and elsewhere.

For example, most of the estimates for Tanzania are from 2009; for Botswana, from 2006; for Zimbabwe, Gabon, and DRC, even earlier than 2006.

The reality is that this database cannot keep up with the current rates of decline.

Based on this outdated information, the AfESG and IUCN cite a figure of around 500,000 African elephants left in the wild.

We suspect that half that number is now closer to the truth.

Picture of elephants at a mud wallow
An elephant family at a mud wallow in Ruaha. (Photograph by Trevor Jones)

Keeping It Real

The widely reported IUCN soundbite is not only a gross underestimate of how many elephants we are likely to lose over the next ten years “if current rates of poaching persist,” but it also deflects attention from the unprecedented losses of elephants that have already occurred over the past decade.

Following the IUCN/MIKE predictive method, we ought instead to be pointing out that according to the most recent, reliable scientific estimates, many formerly great populations could be 100 percent wiped out in the next five years.

Among the locations that could so soon be devoid of elephants are: Zakouma, Chad; Yankari, Nigeria; Virunga, DRC; Caprivi, Namibia; Garamba, DRC; Queen Elizabeth, Uganda; and now, Selous-Mikumi, Tanzania.

In an age of many endangered and declining species, all rightly jostling for our concern and protection, a predicted 20 percent loss of African elephants over the next decade appears, on the surface, relatively un-concerning.

The reality is far worse, and the situation far more urgent, and misleading statements from respected conservation bodies can set back efforts to rally the priority international support and the action on the ground that are required to turn things around.

It is never easy to know how many elephants are left, nor to make predictions—and elephant protection and well-being are much more than a numbers game. Indeed, in many places where we know populations are being decimated, we cannot afford to wait for more information. We must simply act.

In modern conservation politics, however, numbers are hugely important—We hope that the recently announced pan-African aerial census scheduled for 2014 will provide a clearer picture of what we have already lost across the continent.

Most of all, we must ensure that information put into the public realm is as real as possible.

Drs. Trevor Jones and Katarzyna Nowak direct the Udzungwa Elephant Project in southern Tanzania.

Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones
  • Dr Pieter W. Kat

    Well said Trevor and Katarzyna. The recent IUCN elephant summit in Botswana was a bit of a flop. Starting with the announcement of 500,000 elephants left in the wild. As you correctly point out, this is based on questionable and outdated information. It could also lead to complacency as you mention.

    “Respected conservation bodies” need to do much more to maintain any level of trust. Like getting out of the office a bit more?

  • Save All Elephants

    Until all countries place open blame on the state sanctioned Chinese carvers, there will be a place for the tusks to go to be carved into items for sale, and without more anti-poaching teams and severe penalties, elephants will continue to die.

  • Joyce Poole

    Thank you Trevor and Katarzyna, I agree 100% with what you have written. The African Elephant Database lists Selous with 81,000 elephants when there are but 13,000. And Tanzania, once a stronghold for the continents elephants could have less than 40,000 remaining. As we know from Kenya, the MIKE data are far from the full story. It is time that other voices are heard.

  • mary harmon

    Thank you for this information. This is clearly a global issue and concern, not just an African issue. We must press our leaders to add yet another focus area on the agenda as this ruthless cruelty in the end impacts each of us.

  • raquel ferreira

    we need to know profiles of people who buys ivory , we have to see company names conected to those buys, we need to know the circle of conention of residents and non residence that contract the killers, we need to know the profile of the field killers and their circle of contacts and we need corageus paparazzi to picture it. we need to get furious and agressive towards them insted of just sharing tears when we see those magnificent animals dead. i´m from europe, i´m not rich to go to africa and fight for it (i really want to but i´m realistic), so i need to have other kind of information to fight those people. please help me (just an average caring person for wildlive and Africa) to help you and the animals.


    something must be done regarding china’s insatiable need for ivory african .governments must unite to punish this country for its continued abuse and underworld connections which continue to kill the elephant and rhino daily…………..why is this allowed to go on ??? do not the africans see that they are pawns for the demise of all their country and that the country will be barren without these elephants………..the history of elephants in africa are thousands of years old l and to sell it away to a selfserving country that puts little value on life or animal is just so sad.

  • Marci

    What about the idea of somehow making the tusks of living elephants un-marketable? Maybe by dying them an ugly color. I was recently at the Sheldrick Elephant orphanage near Nairobi and the manager there said there is an investigation happening now to figure out what dye might work. Does anyone know the status of this?

  • A Jacob

    Thanks for this article, understand poaching is really the no:1 threat to the elephant population and loss of habitat due to human population explosion the 2nd. But why then these countries are allowing Trophy Hunting of Elephants? In one Trophy Hunter report on hunting in Zimbabwe there was no evidence that the ele that was shot was properly identified as a herd that needed to be culled or the particular ele (and it was a female ele) or herd causing trouble to the villagers! And this was the Trophy Hunter’s 4th ele over the last four years. Why this dirty sport is allowed, here the reserve owner/hunter is allowed to earn ‘legally’ by offering the country’s wildlife, then how do one explain to the poacher (the one who carry out the kill- usually native african) that he can’t earn by taking the life of the animal? And none of these countries military – Z’bwe, Tanzania, SAfrica – are at present involved in any war, then why not use the military man-power against poaching issue?

  • Russell Frankish

    It’s very important that this information is shared and we take strong action to change the situation.

    However, I find it exceptionally concerning that westerners love blaming “THE EAST” (particularly China) for their “insatiable need” for these products. Let’s get real and honest! Western hunters drove many iconic species to the brink of extinction (the Southern-most African elephant population was believed to number over 100,000 before westerners arrived with guns. The Addo National Park was established to protect the last remaining 16 of that population.

    Western hunters (primarily American) continue to plunder African wildlife resources with impunity and without any kind of remorse or conscience. We see American hunters rolling into South Africa in their droves (with camo-clad kids in tow), en route to their hunting grounds, lauded and applauded by their countrymen as “conservationists” and the “saviours of the African wildlife”.

    So why do we sanction our own while condemning “the East”? Or would that be too much to expect from “the West”! Why do we not hold governments accountable (oh wait, the West applauded and waved flags while some the biggest criminals in history were elected into power in African lands). Why does the west not hold African governments accountable (but in fact, the wildlife resources belong the countries and the people of those countries, to be utilised as they see fit). Some honesty and integrity might not be misplaced.

    That said, a great report and one that, in my experience, fairly (and sadly) reflects the reality facing Africa’s wildlife.

  • Ian Redmond

    Another problem with the difficult task of estimating elephant numbers and rates of decline is that they are still being reported as if there is only one species of African elephant. Forest and Savannah Elephants are separate species (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101221/full/news.2010.691.html) and so reporting a continental elephant population seriously underestimates the threat to both species – especially the forest ele, which should arguably be classed as Critically Endangered.

  • claudia m.e. charles-v.groning

    We are not allowed to let this torture and mollesting go on and on! We really need to think twice and defend all creatures among us, people. I have a hard time living as a human being for I am one of those who mollestures our wildlife on our earth. That makes me guillty too…..there for I hope we can still make a change……

  • Mitra Ramkissoon

    The poaching will not stop until the demand for ivory is curtailed. Other factors such as rampant poverty in Africa need to be addressed. That is however easier said than done.
    Concomitantly, everyone speaks of China’s never ending need for ivory, which is inherently reprehensible, however, we must remember that just behind the Chinese, the USA has a very high demand for ivory as well.
    I hope that elephants, magnificent creatures that they are, will survive and thrive, and that the day will never come that the only place to see them will be in zoos.

  • deborah russo

    I feel such sadness and anger for what is happening to these most beautiful animals. Gods creatures deserve to live a peaceful life, mans greed destroys all that is beautiful. Something needs to be done quik before it is to late. What a somber day it would be if elephants were gone forever.

  • Mike Fay

    I could not agree more. We are still seeing complete slaughter in the forests here. We have seen our population decrease here in Gabon by over 1/2 in many areas over the past 7 years. Cameroon, CAR, Chad, DRC, Southern Sudan and all of west Africa are virtually empty of elephants compared to a few decades ago, 100s of thousands have been lost. People need to wake up, we are losing just about as fast as we can loose.

  • Michael Keigwin

    Couldn’t agree more, but somewhat stunned to see the Queen Elizabeth National Park elephants being listed as being so vulnerable. Where did that come from?!

  • Michael D. Camphin.

    “Why Can’t some large organisation from overseas donate enough money to SAVE these beautiful creatures and have them in a PROTECTED large park” The IUCN did nothing really except big note themselves. If they were controlled by the Elephants I wonder what the outcome would be like and how they would act. I’m in a wheelchair and all I would love to do is care for them if I could.

  • Lynn Garnier

    Cruelty is not beautiful Elephants are,

  • paulm

    Too late everybody Africa will be killed off, dug up, replanted and populated beyond recognition in the next 50 years.
    Dams, roads, farms and suburbia is what the locals really want.
    If the locals can’t be bothered best to get rid of everything in one final kill off save the pain of prolonged poaching.

  • rocky chaudhry

    so sad .even in Asia .Happening same thing .

  • Maraya Cornell

    Thank you for writing this piece, Trevor and Katarzyna. If you hadn’t, I don’t think anyone outside the inner circle of elephant researchers would know about the new Selous estimate. I can’t find a source online for it anywhere. If you know of a place where I can reference this number, can you please point me to it?

  • Samuel Wasser

    I was very pleased to read the note by Trevor Jones and Kate Nowak as I too found the IUCN report to markedly underestimate the number of elephants being killed. I calculated the number of African elephants being killed based on the number and volume of recent large ivory seizures. This is a well-documented minimum number that can be readily converted to the number of elephants being killed based on a few simple, and modifiable assumptions.

    In 2011, ETIS documented 46,500 kg of ivory seized. I estimated that 6.7 kg of ivory constitutes one elephant, based on figures prepared for CITES over 20 years ago by Alan Rodgers. Each African elephant is assumed to have 1.8 tusks (since not all elephants have both tusks), with each tusk weighing an average of 3.7 kg (this includes young to old elephants); 1.8 tusks x 3.7 kg/tusk = 6.7 kg/elephant. Dividing 46,500 kg by 6.7 kg gives 6,940 dead elephants that composed those seizures. However, customs assumes that seizures represent, at best, 10% of what was actually smuggled. That increases by a factor of 10 the number of dead elephants worth of ivory smuggled in 2011 to 69,400 individuals. One could adjust the assumption of a 10% seizure rate to 20% (although most believe that a 5% seizure rate is more realistic), and still get 35,000 dead elephants. Taking the difference gives 52,000 dead elephants. If you increase mean tusk size to 5 kg, a 10% seizure rate still gives 51,660 dead elephants. No matter how you cut the deck, these calculations more than double the IUCN estimates. Sure, one could argue that not all of these elephants were killed in the same year the ivory was seized. However, the number of large volume seizures we have seen since 2006 is so extraordinarily high that it seems unlikely that most of the ivory currently being seized has been sitting around for very long.

    Now, assuming that ~50,000 elephants are now being killed annually (2013 is clearly going to be worse than 2011), and given the most probable population estimate in the African Elephant Specialist Group report of 470,000 live elephants in 2010, this suggests that the number of remaining elephants are closer to 320,000, with a large portion of them residing in Botswana. That is fairly consistent with the numbers proposed by Jones and Nowak.

    Clearly, we are facing a major conservation problem. We are about to lose one of the most important keystone species in Africa. It does no good to paint a rosy picture of these numbers. We need to appreciate the urgency of this situation and act now. We need to stop demand and we need to dramatically increase law enforcement in the poaching hotspots or there will soon be nothing left. The ecological consequences of this loss will likely be devastating and irreversible to Africa and all those who care.

  • Leonard B Meyer

    Use airplanes and drones to find the poachers, and kill every one!!



  • Zina Swanepoel

    I feel so angry with the Tanzanian government for not taking this seriously enough. The reality is that while there are greedy politicians in power they will continue to let this happen!

  • Linda Wark

    It’s a crisis for sure. Kenya appears to putting things in place, but this is still a “reaction” – http://www.eturbonews.com/41084/president-kenyatta-kenya-signs-new-wildlife-law the ivory trade MUST be made extinct, take away the profit, the poachers go away. We need great minds/leaders to address the root issue.

  • dipi

    The Countries like China who use Elephant tusks, Rhino Horns and Tiger bones should be boycotted and no work/ business given to them.

    Ivory/ Rhino Horns/ Tiger bones should be banned in all countries.

    BTW the British hunted many elephants for ivory and many tigers for skin in past centuries. These items should be consficated and holders punished.

  • A. Lewis

    Thanks to Trevor and Katarznya and their like, awareness of the desperate plight of elephants is heightened daily BUT what is actually being DONE about it? As a tourist one can drive in the wilderness and see the carcasses of poached elephants every day, but it seems to be taboo to discuss it – governmental problems, financial concerns, understandable reasons ‘on the ground’ maybe, but pretending it isn’t happening and doing nothing is tantamount to condoning this ghastly slaughter for ivory. Courage, moral courage as well as physical, is needed from every single person who is in any way involved in tourism in Africa. This problem is not going to go away unless EVERYONE pulls their weight. (This is incorrect – the problem will go away when the last elephant dies.) Speak out, people! Tell what you’ve seen. Don’t be afraid. Remember that “all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to say nothing…”

  • paulm

    Get elephants out of africa now. We need to start having a good gene pool removed for when they are all gone same with West African Lion, Rhinos, cheetah, leopard wild dog, a noah’s arc of all african species needs to be put in a vial and frozen

  • Katalin Apáthy

    The extinction of elephants due to demand for trinkets made from the slaughtered animals tusks? How can we call ourselves human beings and allow these atrocities to continue? It sickens me beyond belief.Never before has wildlife been so threatened by mankind. Lions, elephants, tigers and rhinos are the subject of ancient fables and tales, and now our generation is annihilating them. What we are doing is arrogant and sinister, and is a terrifying indication of a loss of our moral compass — herds of elephants are executed with assault rifles for ivory, African lions are ground up to make bogus medicines, and thousands of sharks have their fins cut off while they’re alive. It’s crazy! The UN estimates up to 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal go extinct every 24 hours — a rate faster than anything the world has seen since the vanishing of dinosaurs millions of years ago. Lions have vanished from more than 80 percent of their historic range and are extinct in 26 countries, according to Panthera, a wildcat conservation group. Only 20,000 remain in the wild, down from a global population of 200,000 in the 1950s.The apex predators are threatened by a range of factors, including habitat loss, scarcity of wild prey because of overhunting by humans, and retaliatory poisoning by herders and farmers after lions kill their livestock.If the situation doesn’t change dramatically, some experts predict that lions could be extinct in the wild in 10 to 20 years. WE MUST STOP THIS!!! Enough of talking around and it is high time we began to act.We must give guns for the protectors of animals and fight the poachers back. Come on people WE MUST all band together TO STOP THIS EVIL ON OUR PLANET.

  • Andrew Wyatt
  • Jeanie

    I join with Katalin Apathy and A. Jacob in their call for miltary armed resistance enacted against all poachers, their affiliates and networks. We are at the eleventh hour, and NOW is our only time left for decisive plans that must be readied for tomorrow. No further delays. While the human world talks and negotiates, our elephants, rhinos, et all are being slaughtered before the eyes of the entire world who witness ANOTHER holocaust and AGAIN does NOTHING. The killers will never stop killing until they are faced with an opposition as well-armed, ruthless and motivated. This is a HUGE problem of global proportions and it will require a global response that will call for a large-scale coalition of military and surveillance forces whose immediate and far-reaching objective would be to eradicate poaching from the sovereign countries of most beautiful Africa. Is this possible? I believe anything is possible…

  • jeff trodden

    it seems to me that stopping this poaching and saving the species is a nearly impossable task unfortunately but i had a thought about a solution that i dont know if it has ever been considered. what if teams went out by air and shot elephants with tranquilizers and then sawed of their tusks thus leaving a poacher no more reason to kill them. i know it seems drastic and even somwhat cruel but i think ultimately it could work. unless their was a medical way to treat baby elephants with somthing that woul somehow stop them from growing tusks.bottom line is that is the problem how to eliminate the ivory itself from the equation.

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