It has long been known that China's voracious appetite for ivory is helping drive a spike in the poaching of African elephants. But until now, it wasn't clear just how bad the problem has become. According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, elephants are being killed at a faster rate than the animals can reproduce, and their widespread killing is tearing apart elephant societies.
Researchers led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University found that elephant killings correlated with the market price of ivory. In 2011, when ivory prices peaked, some 40,000 elephants were killed. Wittemyer's research provides the most comprehensive examination to date of the rate of elephant poaching. Because of poaching's illicit nature, researchers have struggled to compile good data on its full scope. According to his research, between 2010 and 2012, some 6.8 percent of the global elephant population was killed. That amounts to an average of 33,630 elephants per year.
The slaughter of male elephants has had profound consequences for elephant societies. The killing of males in their breeding years poses a threat to the species's future longevity. The researchers add that the widespread killing of males has resulted in "collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans."
This phenomenon can be largely ascribed to China's nearly insatiable demand for ivory. Rising incomes have helped buoy demand for a product seen as a status marker. A huge amount of the ivory seized around the world was destined for China and Hong Kong, and though it is an imperfect measure, it indicates the degree to which the underground ivory market remains concentrated in China. Wittemyer and his researchers illustrate this phenomenon in a striking pair of graphics:
The spike in elephant mortality rates mirrors the rate at which elephants are illegally killed, but as Wittemyer and his colleagues note, the data also provides something of a puzzle: The rate of poaching slowed after their 2011 peak, though the price of ivory stayed high. It’s not entirely clear why. China has been taking measures to restrict the sale of ivory, but it is unclear the degree to which that has helped stem demand.
Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images