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."
Support the news
More NPR or Explore Audio.