Science + Technology
3:44 am
Wed March 6, 2013

Elephant Poaching Pushes Species To Brink Of Extinction

Originally published on Wed March 6, 2013 11:18 am

A new study of Central African forest elephants has found their numbers down by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. The study comes as governments and conservationists meet in Thailand to amend the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

African forest elephants have been in trouble for a while, but only now have scientists figured out that more than half of them have died over the past decade. It took hundreds of researchers nine years, walking literally thousands of miles, counting piles of elephant dung as well as elephant carcasses stripped of their ivory tusks, to realize that the majority of the dead had been shot.

"We can see from seizures of ivory, and we can see from the number of carcasses that are starting to lie around in the forest, that elephants are in deeper and deeper trouble," said Fiona Maisels, who was part of the team that published these findings in the latest issue of the journal PLOS.

There's always been ivory poaching in Africa, but after a ban in 1989, the trade diminished. Now, however, the numbers have exploded. Some 25,000 African elephants are being killed every year, many of them being forest elephants living in the heart of Africa.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the research project found that the closer people, roads and villages are to elephants, the more animals die. The researchers used geographic information systems to correlate these factors to the numbers of killed elephants. They also discovered the "corruption to dung" ration.

"The more corrupt the country," Maisels says, "the less dung there is." That's government corruption, meaning officials who overlook or even participate in the illegal trade.

But the biggest contributor to the uptick in elephant killing is a huge spike in demand for ivory in China, where new wealth means more people can buy ivory. "And this [is] mainly to do with the fact that there is a very big middle to wealthy class in China now," Maisels says.

Chinese collectors covet ivory for figurines, chopsticks and trinkets. China is by no means the only market, but wildlife experts say China consumes half the supply. A growing population of Chinese workers in Africa makes the trade that much easier. As a result, the price of ivory has shot up tenfold over the past five to seven years.

The Chinese government has promised to discuss measures to curb the trade at the CITES meeting this week. But Maisels, who teaches wildlife biology at the University of Stirling in Scotland, says education is most important.

"Chinese students come up to me and say, 'Wow, you know, what can we do? We had no idea,' " she says. "That's the story that's put out, [that] they're anesthetized, the tusks are taken out, and they're patted on the bottom and sent out to grow a new set."

Biologist Richard Ruggiero at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent 30 years working with elephants in central Africa. He says the numerical death count is bad enough, but he believes this is an animal that is somehow aware that something terrible is happening to it.

"Behind the numbers is a real tragedy of a very sentient creature, who really knows that there's a genocide going on," Ruggiero says. "They understand the concept of mortality. They show signs of mourning dead. They understand what tusks mean. They'll pick them up from a carcass."

Ruggiero says it's not just an African or Chinese problem. It requires everyone to take notice to halt the lucrative trade.

"Hopefully people will see the big picture," he says, "will see the aesthetics that elephants cannot and should not be reduced to numbers in a balance book of a business that trades in their teeth."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Eleven years ago, NPR sent a team from its Radio Expeditions program deep into the forest of the Central African Republic. Their mission was to record the magnificent sounds of the forest elephant. And here's what they heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT TRUMPETING)

MONTAGNE: The sad fact is that there's a good chance the elephants in that tape have been shot by poachers.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new study of African forest elephants has found their numbers down by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. This report comes as governments and conservationists meet in Thailand to amend the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

MONTAGNE: As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the study reveals that the forest elephant could be headed for extinction.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: African forest elephants have been in trouble for a while. But only now have scientists figured out that over half of them have died over the last decade. It took hundreds of researchers nine years walking literally thousands of miles, counting piles of elephant dung and counting elephant carcasses stripped of their ivory tusks, to realize that the majority had been shot.

Fiona Maisels was part of the team that published these findings in the journal PLOS.

FIONA MAISELS: We can see from seizures of ivory and we can see from the number of carcasses that are starting to lie around in the forest, the elephants are in deeper and deeper trouble.

JOYCE: There's always been ivory poaching in Africa. But after a ban in 1989, the trade diminished. Now though, the numbers have exploded. Some 25,000 African elephants are being killed every year. And forest elephants living in the heart of Africa are really getting hammered.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the research project found that the closer people and roads and villages are to elephants, the more animals die. They also discovered the corruption-to-dung ratio.

MAISELS: The more corrupt the country the less dung there is.

JOYCE: Government corruption meaning officials who overlook or even participate in the illegal trade.

But the biggest contributor to the uptick in elephant killing is a huge spike in demand for ivory in China, where new wealth means more people can buy ivory.

MAISELS: And this is mainly to do with the fact that there is a very big middle to wealthy class in China now.

JOYCE: Chinese collectors covet ivory for figurines, chopsticks, trinkets. China is by no means the only market but wildlife experts say China consumes half the supply of ivory. And a growing population of Chinese workers in Africa makes the trade that much easier. As a result, the price of ivory has shot up tenfold over the past five to seven years.

The Chinese government has promised to discuss measures to curb the trade at the CITES meeting this week. But Maisels, who teaches wildlife biology at the University of Stirling in Scotland, says education is important.

MAISELS: Chinese students come up to me and say, wow, you know, what can we do, we had no idea. You know, this is the story that is been put out; that they're anesthetized, the tusks are taken out and then they're patted on the bottom and sent on their way to grow a new set.

JOYCE: For 30 years, biologist Richard Ruggiero, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working with elephants in central Africa. He says the numerical death count is bad enough. But he believes this is an animal that is somehow aware that something terrible is happening to it.

RICHARD RUGGIERO: Behind the numbers is a real tragedy of a very sentient creature who really knows that there's a genocide going on. They understand the concept of mortality. They show signs of mourning dead. They understand what tusks mean. They'll pick them up from a carcass.

JOYCE: Ruggiero says it's not just an African or a Chinese problem, it requires everyone to take notice to halt the lucrative trade.

RUGGIERO: Hopefully people will see the big picture, will see the aesthetics that elephants cannot and should not be reduced to numbers in a balance book of a business that trades in their teeth.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.