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Report Estimates Enormous Economic Value of Living Elephants

When a young elephant dies at the hands of an ivory poacher, according to a recent report, the commercial loss to the tourism industry is more than $1.6 million–­–the amount the animal would have contributed to the economy had it lived a full and happy life. The report, published by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s...

When a young elephant dies at the hands of an ivory poacher, according to a recent report, the commercial loss to the tourism industry is more than $1.6 million–­–the amount the animal would have contributed to the economy had it lived a full and happy life.

The report, published by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s (DSWT) “iworry” wildlife awareness campaign, describes the tremendous value that an elephant adds to tourism over many decades. It compares this to the relatively small one-off sum of $21,000 that ivory traders earn from the tusks­ of an elephant.

According to this report, in financial terms, a living elephant is as valuable as 76 dead elephants.

“Protecting elephants makes monetary sense,” says Rob Brandford, director of the iworry campaign. “Data of this type can be used to show that elephant conservation is a far more viable economic proposition than the ivory trade. It’s a powerful incentive to the decision makers in charge of our natural resources to protect the species against rampant poaching.”

The Numbers

When viewed through the non-consumptive lens, a single elephant, alive, can contribute $22,966 to tourism per year, according to the report.

Elephants can live for up to 70 years, which amounts to an intrinsic value of more than $1.6 million over its lifetime.

The publication sourced these figures from a 1994 study by David Curry and Helen Moore. The study found that over a single elephant’s lifetime, it distributed a million dollars among a wide range of recipients: from airlines and travel companies to local economies.

Given that a decade had passed since the paper was published, the iworry report used the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation, arriving at a present day value of $1.6 million per elephant. It’s noted in the report that the figures are an estimate and should not be taken as definitive.

By tallying up all the ivory seizures reported to TRAFFIC (the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) between January and August 2014, the iworry analysis estimates from the total weight of confiscated tusks that 1,940 elephants were killed. (Not all poached ivory is confiscated, so this represents an estimated 10 percent of the total number of elephants slaughtered by poachers in Africa during this period.)

When considering the recorded number of elephants killed by poachers through August of this year, and comparing this to their lifelong intrinsic value to tourism, the slaughter of those 1,940 elephants has cost Africa’s tourism industry, local communities, and economies a total of $44,554,844 million.

Extrapolating to account for the unreported additional illegal ivory—the 90 percent—the total lost would potentially be a staggering $445,548,444.

Rangers carry confiscated ivory. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

The Wrong People Reap the Benefits

Revenues from the ivory trade currently benefit criminal gangs, corrupt military units, and terrorists groups such as Al Shabaab in Kenya and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Sudan.

This is why, the report says, additional resources need to be allocated to anti-poaching operations in these areas and greater commitment to community education and awareness campaigns at the sources of demand for ivory—China and Japan, especially, but also other countries in Southeast Asia.

“The price of a dead elephant to a poacher or corrupt official is significantly less than is paid at the other end of the supply chain,” Brandford says. “But when compared to wage levels in poverty stricken, rural communities, it’s a significant amount.”

“Earlier this year we interviewed a poacher who stated that he received $550 for 43 kilograms (94 pounds) of ivory ($12.80 per kilo). There are subsequent markups on this value as the ivory moves up the chain from poacher to facilitator to smuggler to retailer—with the ultimate price paid for raw ivory in China being $2,100 per kilo.”

Without enforcement––more boots on the ground and stiffer penalties for poaching and possession of ivory––elephant populations are likely to dwindle further, Brandford says, reducing the opportunity for local communities to earn significant foreign exchange from wildlife tourism.

LQ_Multiple elephants

Full Trade Ban Called For

As a result of the findings, the iworry report recommends an immediate end to all sales of ivory.

“In order to give elephants the best possible chance of survival, Brandford says, “a complete worldwide ban on all ivory trade, combined with strict enforcement, education programmes, and the destruction of stockpiles must be implemented.”

The alternative to a ban, mooted by some, would be to allow a temporary, regulated trade to satisfy current appetites for ivory.

But, as Brandford says, a legal market gives opportunity to launder cheaper, illegal goods into the marketplace.

“The past has shown that we simply cannot control the ivory trade, given the high levels of corruption prevalent in many African countries. Elephants don’t have the time for policymakers to enact the enforcement measures so sorely needed, and for education to change attitudes over generations.”

Even if stringent trade policies were put in place immediately, previous studies by CITES have failed to account for important economic elements that may have radical and unknown consequences for the market and the illegal trade.

The iworry report recognizes a critical need to allocate a monetary value to wildlife in its natural form, because policymakers allocate their resources, including investment in anti-poaching, based primarily on economic factors.

“We need to look beyond the oft used moral reasons,” Brandford says. “Protecting elephants makes economic sense. Whether you’re responsible for a reserve in Tanzania or a national park in Kenya.”

“If elephants live, tourists will come.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Paul Steyn
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram