Combatting Elephant Poaching: An Overview

Combatting Elephant Poaching: An Overview

On safari in South Africa, I was able to witness firsthand several elephants in their natural habitat playing by a watering hole. Sitting there, I was overwhelmed by their presence; they had a certain air about them, an overpowering calmness that radiated towards our Jeep. I watched as one of the elephants gazed at his reflection in the water. I could feel the animal’s intelligence just by watching him behave naturally. After these mesmerizing encounters with the elephants on safari, I decided to do some research. As I learned more and more about the plight of the elephants, it deeply affected me. How could it be that such incredible creatures are being absolutely annihilated by humans? In my research I found that the demand for ivory from the East and the current crisis that African elephants face are anything but new. Elephants have been exploited for their ivory long before colonial times. Archaeologists recently excavated ivory adorned with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that dates as far back as 3400 BC. Used in jewelry, ornaments, statues and a myriad of different items, ivory has always represented a certain level of social status and privilege.

The 19th century saw a boom in the ivory trade, causing an extraordinary spike in elephant poaching occurrences and a dramatic decrease in global elephant populations. The 20th century proved to be a bit better for the elephants, as the era for national parks began and brought forth a spirit of conservation. Yet, in the late 1970s and 80s, as the Far East began to flourish, the demand for ivory surged. The problem was greatly reduced after the world ban on ivory trade in 1989. Fast forward to the 21st century and with the illegal ivory trade back on the rise, elephants are increasingly in peril.



To combat the dramatic decline in elephants due to poaching for the black market, it is imperative that the response to poaching be more effective. Each country has differing laws for wildlife crimes. Many of them are very outdated and are practically useless in regulating current poaching and illicit wildlife trade. Governance must start on a local level, and people caught trading ivory illegally must be punished more severely. Many poachers face criminal charges if arrested, but oftentimes the charges are dropped or just not severe enough due to corruption in particular justice systems. This poaching problem stretches farther than lax governance. The poaching of elephant populations is made easy in many places by the fact that protected areas are not adequately patrolled and security measures are not cost-effective. This lack of pushback to poaching and the ease with which the crime can be committed translates into a reinforcement of the idea that poaching is “okay.” If I’m not going to be penalized and I can make a years’ salary in one day, what is stopping me from poaching? This is often the case in areas with inefficient governance, substandard living conditions and, subsequently high poverty rates.

A correlation has been found to exist between areas with high rates of poverty, infanticide and high incidents of poaching. This means that poorer communities are more likely to poach the surrounding wildlife as a means of subsistence. This connection allows us to narrow our focus to certain aspects of the problem: the high demand for ivory from countries such as China and Thailand and the lack of a “crackdown” on illegal poaching at the local level.

So, what new method can be used to stop the poaching problem that hasn’t been introduced between now and 1989? The answer lies in human development and large changes to marketplaces that make illegal ivory trade possible. Large systemic changes must be made by major world powers, particularly the U.S. and China, in order to completely curb the ivory trade. This is a long-term solution that requires commitment and will not be accomplished in a day. A more short-term plan would be to focus development efforts on the local level. The pushback against poaching needs to be strong from the communities surrounding wildlife reserves. It is important for conservation and anti-poaching initiatives to start from the ground up. African rangers and highly trained tracking teams must lead the way rather than outsourcing the problem and creating unnecessary tensions between local communities and newcomers trying to enforce or impose unwanted rules.

Elephant tracking initiatives such as the MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants) program use GPS and satellite tracking, collaring devices, and even drones to monitor elephant movements and ensure population security. In order to remain effective and stay up to date on technological advancements, they rely heavily on government funding and resources. Technological strategies greatly enhance human capability in combatting poaching and increasing conservation efforts. Though these strategies have made significant improvements in the past few years, the demand for ivory must be greatly lowered in order to change the path ahead for the African elephant.

Photo credit: Olivia Goldring
Photo credit: Olivia Goldring

Ninety percent of ivory confiscated from Kenya’s airport is destined for China, the largest illegal marketplace in the world. After the legal ivory sale of South African elephant ivory undermined the ivory trade ban in 2008, the general Chinese public was led to believe that all ivory sales are permissible and lawful. This misconception along with the fact that there are more and more consumers willing to buy ivory products fuel the rising numbers of killings.

The Chinese government must work harder to change public perceptions and raise nationwide awareness about the consequences that go along with buying that ivory trinket. Today, the world elephant population is roughly 450,000. The majority of elephants are extinct in Asia with very few protected populations remaining. The numbers paint a grave picture. It is essential that our generation make the necessary efforts to save the remaining African elephants. If current trends continue, our grandchildren—possibly our own children—won’t live to see an elephant roam freely in the wild. That’s why it is imperative that we ask world powers to come together to end the illicit trade of ivory and do everything in their power to regulate these markets. As the demand for ivory soars and poorly protected elephant populations remain commonplace, elephant poaching will not stop unless large-scale changes are made. It is imperative that developments not only take place on the local level, but on the international level by changing global market spaces and transforming the way the consumer views ivory. Once ivory isn’t viewed as a luxury item, elephants can keep their tusks firmly attached to their faces and continue playing in their watering holes as they have for thousands of years.

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