Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings

Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline

A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa – one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.

In their rush to blame the plight of elephants on Chinese demand for ivory, Western journalists leave out the other factors that are equally or even more important, but far less dramatic. In the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky blames “the despicable hunger of [China’s] status-conscious middle class for baubles of worked ivory.” In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that “driving the slaughter is desire.”

In reality, the elephant crisis we should be reading about is the loss of habitat — a trend that has been building quietly and inexorably for decades. This is the process, more than the killing of individual elephants or even whole herds and more than growing demand for ivory in China, that will doom Africa’s elephants in the long term if it continues unchecked.

Over the past several decades, nearly one-third of elephant range in Africa has been heavily impacted by human population growth, infrastructure development, and rapid agricultural and urban expansion. If current population and development trends continue, and Globio models suggest they will, then over the next 40 years more than 60 percent of elephant range will disappear, with the heaviest losses in Central and West Africa.

Habitat loss is neither new nor dramatic. A few more acres of land cleared for cotton or corn in Chad or Nigeria, another oil palm plantation in Cameroon, escapes the attention of everyone not within sight.

By contrast, a bull elephant killed for its tusks with a high-powered rifle and left to rot in a Kenyan or Tanzanian park is a sure-fired winner in the competition for clicks, tweets, and dollars. From there it is but a small step to the claim, (utterly without foundation), that Africa’s elephants could be extinct in ten years.

Such hyperbole misrepresents the data and masks the real challenge. Some populations of elephants are in fact at grave risk in the near term from a revived ivory trade, but demand for ivory is just one factor driving the decline. The others — notably poverty, civil conflict, and failed states — defy both simple solutions and tidy narratives, and conservation tales often need a villain. Hunters and Chinese ivory dealers are tailor-made for the role.

The elephants most at risk from the ivory trade are found not on East Africa’s savannas but in Central Africa’s forests. Forest elephants — either a separate species or a subspecies depending on which taxonomist you consult — have been under intense and unrelenting hunting pressure for years, unlike most savannah elephant populations, which were stable or growing slowing from roughly 1997 until 2008. By one estimate, forest elephants now occupy just 25 percent of their historical range and the population is just 10 percent of its what the 2.2 million square-kilometers Central African forest could conservatively support.

The devastating drop in the forest elephant population gets as little media coverage as the loss of habitat. While savanna elephants are Africa’s iconic species, forest elephants are nearly invisible. Forest elephants have been until recently largely left out of one of the most reliable headline-generators in conservation science: the elephant census.

Accurate data are without question integral to designing effective conservation programs, be they local efforts to manage a protected area or global efforts to control the ivory trade. The fundraising value of a dire-sounding report, however, far outweighs whatever scientific value it may have and quickly buries the caveats and assumptions that must be part of the effort to count any species over such a large area.

As with polar bears, counting elephants is tricky business and making sense of the numbers and trends from hundreds of studies across the continent requires a grasp of sophisticated statistical modeling techniques (hierarchical Bayesian analysis, anyone?) and a keen eye for such nuances as whether an aerial survey plane has high-definition cameras and what kind of altimeter it uses.

To make matters even more complicated, the number of elephants is just one piece of the puzzle and not necessarily the most important. The shape of some pieces, like those that help define the dynamics of the ivory trade by tracing the source of the ivory using isotope or DNA analysis, are just beginning to emerge. Still others, like those regarding the market forces driving the trade —speculation and leakage of ivory from government stockpiles into the market, for example — are still blank because the data are lacking.

Putting the whole thing together will require combining different types of data — live elephants, dead elephants, seized shipments of tusks, the number of ranger patrols, levels of customs enforcement and on and on — that are collected in different ways in different places and with different ends in mind. Analyzing it all in a way that makes sense is not as photogenic as soaring over the plains looking for elephants, but it may be more important.

People have been counting savanna elephants from the air for almost 50 years, but that method does not work for forest elephants. A forest elephant census requires the most mundane and painstaking kind of work imaginable: counting dung. Census takers count the dung along transects and estimate the population by combining the results with estimates of the rates of elephant defecation and dung decay. No glamour or drama here, but done properly the dung-counting technique can be more precise than aerial sample counts.

Elephants live over far too vast an area for a complete, scientifically rigorous census for all of Africa. Estimates of elephant population and range at the continental scale still include the best guesses of the most informed person in a particular area, often a single park administrator. That is why maps of elephant range often have nice, crisp lines that correspond to protected areas; elephants almost certainly move back and forth across many of those borders, but such movements are simply impossible to document.

The range maps and data tables in the African Elephant Database provide more information on the conservation status of elephants than is available for any mammal. Yet even with all that data, crucial questions about population trends defy simple answers. A reliable trend requires repeat surveys — same area, same technique, ideally the same people doing the counting. Such repeat surveys are hard to come by. In fact, some areas in Africa don’t get resurveyed for years, if ever.

There are other ways to get a handle on trends. The most useful come from a program called Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants, or MIKE, in operation since 2002 as part of the effort to control the ivory trade. Now with 60 sites across Africa, MIKE relies on park rangers to report when they find elephant carcasses and whether they were killed illegally or died of natural causes. Such reports pose a challenge from a statistical perspective because they are not random and the level of patrol efforts varies considerably from place to place — here is where the Baysian analysis comes in — but MIKE data are increasingly important in understanding poaching trends.

Another database, the Elephant Trade Information System, tracks seizures of illegal ivory. It is invaluable, but poses some of the same analytical challenges as the carcass data from rangers. Still, the data from MIKE and ETIS provides the most reliable basis for concluding that hunting of elephants has spiked since 2008 and now exceeds the natural growth rate. In some places, 80 percent of the elephant carcasses that rangers find are elephants that were killed illegally for their ivory. That level of poaching cannot be sustained.

Do we need to know more? Yes and no. More and more reliable data, especially for Central Africa and on an ongoing basis, can only deepen our understanding of elephants and the threats to them. But if we focus single-mindedly on what is in front of us, the short-term threat of poaching for the ivory trade and the most up-to date census figures, we will find that when we turn around elephants will have even fewer places to live. Then the crisis will truly be upon us, and those headlines will be more frightening than ever.

Jonathan S. Adams is a conservation biologist, writer, and former program director of the Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Knowledge and Communities Program. He is the author of The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion and Nature’s Fortune, written in collaboration with Mark Tercek.

Photo Credit: