Conservationists Urge Action As African Elephants Reach Tipping Point

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A study out this week says more African elephants are being killed each year than are being born. The research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says since 2010, an average of nearly 35,000 elephants have been killed annually on the African continent.

The study's lead author, George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, told the BBC, "We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent."

BBC science correspondent Rebecca Morelle discusses the elephant population and what's being done to stop poaching, with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Editor's Note 8/20/14: In this interview, Rebecca Morelle stated that elephants could be gone within 100 years. Some listeners wrote in to say that elephants are only 10 years away from extinction. We asked Rebecca for an explanation of the numbers, and she sent this response:

A number of organisations say that elephants have 10 years left before they vanish from Africa. But if you look at this paper - which has been peer reviewed, has 6 hugely eminent authors from some of the best research organizations in the world, is the biggest assessment of the stats to date - the data does not support this. The team concludes that from 2010, about 34,000 elephants are being killed each year. That's about 100,000 elephants in 3 years (we don't have full 2014 data - so let's say that takes us up to 2013). That works out as 7% of the elephant population being wiped out every year. Some say if you lose 7% each year, within 10-15 years elephants will be gone. But the elephant population is not static - new elephants are born, and it's estimated that the population grows each year by about 5%. So if you want to look at the total loss, you have to take the amount dying (7%) but then factor in the amount of population growth (5%,) that leaves a net loss of 2% averaged out across the whole of Africa. And if you lose 2% each year, within approx. 100 years, elephants will be gone. But if the poaching rate goes up, elephants will go sooner (and conversely, if it drops, they'll have more time). There is also the issue that some areas elephants are doing worse than others. In central Africa, for example, about 60% of elephants were killed in a decade - so it's likely that the elephants will vanish from some parts of Africa sooner in some areas.

Note: This BBC interview can be heard in the Here & Now podcast or with the WBUR app.


  • Rebecca Morelle, global science correspondent for BBC News. She tweets @rebeccamorelle.

This segment aired on August 19, 2014.


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