To save African elephants, scientists say ivory sales must stop

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

After being shot by poachers, Philo, a teenage African elephant, collapsed, then was executed. Credit: Carl Safina
After being shot by poachers, Philo, a teenage African elephant, collapsed, then was executed. Credit: Carl Safina

Poachers are killing more than 27,000 African elephants every year for their tusks, making uncertain elephants’ very existence into the future. That comes out to about 100 African elephant murders every day, leaving just about 400,000 of these creatures remaining in the wild. Today, poachers kill more elephants for ivory than are born, severely threatening the species’ survival.

So it was encouraging when earlier this month at a major international wildlife conservation conference most of the 217 nations in attendance agreed the ivory trade must be shut down in order to save elephants. Yet several African countries—Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe—are now proposing just the opposite, to legalize certain ivory sales to save elephants.

Carved ivory, from Southern Italy, made in the late 11th century. Credit: Jastrow (Wikimedia Commons)
Carved ivory, from Southern Italy, made in the late 11th century. Credit: Jastrow (Wikimedia Commons)

And their proposal is being seriously considered this week at another major international wildlife conservation conference, the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s Convention of the Parties, or, CITES CoP17.

If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. Those in support of outlawing the ivory trade say it would best protect elephants by reducing the global demand for ivory, yet supporters of legalizing some ivory sales say ivory bans promote poaching by pushing trade onto the black market. They argue that regulated ivory sales enable officials to choose when and where elephants are killed and ivory is taken, thereby reducing the overall pressure on African elephant populations.

While that “regulated” ivory sale idea might sound nice on paper, experts say it has now been officially debunked. A new paper published in Current Biology found that, instead of helping reduce the number of African elephants killed each year for tusks, legalizing sales of ivory will only move the species closer to extinction.

A gigantic male and an adult female African elephant. With all that ivory they are very lucky to still be alive. Credit: Carl Safina

British researchers David Lusseau and Phyllis C. Lee used mathematical models and data on elephant populations to develop a model to determine a “sustainable ivory yield.” That’s the number of elephants that could be killed each year for ivory so that the number of elephants born each year still outnumbers those that are killed. Lusseau and Lee found that number to be extremely small, much lower than the current rate of slaughter occurring in Africa.

“We found that the sustainability space is very small. Only 100 to 150 kg of ivory could be removed from a reference population of 1,360 elephants, levels well below the current demand,” the researchers conclude. That’s just a bit more than one set of adult elephant tusks per herd in all of Africa.

The researchers also point out the fact that past one-off ivory sales, such as those initiated in 1999 and 2008 failed to stop or slow elephant poaching. What’s more, the past history of regulated legal whaling hunting suggests it would be extremely challenging for governments to enforce sales quotas due to stockpiling and illegal trade.

“Our study shows that lifting the ivory ban will not address the current poaching challenge,” say Lusseau and Lee. “We should instead focus on reducing consumer demand.”

Reducing demand is a three-step process, according to ecologist and author Carl Safina. “Consumers must first care about elephants, know about the killing catastrophe that is going on because of ivory demand and then simply not buy ivory. It’s just a luxury item; no one needs it for anything.”

One of the largest and oldest surviving males in Kenya, Tim is more than 40 years old and lives in and around Amboseli National Park. He is in great danger from poachers. Credit: Carl Safina
One of the largest and oldest surviving males in Kenya, Tim is more than 40 years old and lives in and around Amboseli National Park. He is in great danger from poachers. Credit: Carl Safina

In order to save elephants, the killing needs to stop now. And while a loss of elephants on the species level is painful, it’s also devastating to elephants as individuals. This is something Safina witnessed firsthand during his travels to Africa when researching his recent book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.

“I saw how loving and protective elephants are to their family members,” says Safina. “And I saw orphaned elephants who’d died, and a few rescued orphans who were traumatized by what they’d seen and what had happened to them. The current slaughter is driving these wonderful creatures to extinction and causing great pain along the way; it must be stopped.”

You can help work toward a better future for elephants by spreading the word about ivory. Sign petitions and write letters to lawmakers in support of ivory bans. And never, ever buy ivory!

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.