A new survey has found a catastrophic decline in Africa's elephant population, with a net loss of more than 110,000 elephants across the continent since 2006, mostly due to a dramatic rise in the illegal ivory trade.
The survey, the most comprehensive in a decade, found that the latest elephant losses are the worst in 25 years, with some African countries seeing entire populations wiped out.
The discovery will lend fresh urgency to debates this week on whether to tighten a global ban on the ivory trade. Some African nations want a complete ban on the trade, while others are seeking the right to sell their stockpiles. Decisions must be made by Oct. 5 at a Johannesburg conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty.
The legalization bid is unlikely to win approval, but there are fears that a strengthened CITES ban on the ivory trade would result in some countries dropping out of the treaty, leading to a revival of ivory exports as some African governments sell their stocks to Asian buyers.
The latest study, released on Sunday by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), found a total of about 415,000 elephants across Africa – a drastic drop of 111,000 over the past decade, although there may be additional elephants in regions that are difficult to survey. The study is based on more than 275 new or updated estimates for individual elephant populations, including more than 180 systematic surveys.
"This new number should sound a deafening alarm," said Ginette Hemley, head of the WWF delegation at the CITES conference. "The plight of Africa's elephants continues to worsen, and illegal ivory trade is to blame."
The vast majority of elephants are now sheltered in a handful of southern countries, primarily Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia.
The survey found a glimmer of good news in East Africa, where elephants are increasing in Kenya and Uganda. But it found a disastrous decline of 60 per cent in Tanzania's elephant population, largely due to a massive surge in poaching. And it found that the remaining elephant populations in West Africa and Central Africa are fragmented, isolated and under severe pressure from poachers, loggers, miners, deforestation and other threats.
Elephants in the Central African Republic, for example, have "almost completely disappeared," the IUCN report said. Poachers have inflicted heavy damage on elephant populations in Gabon, Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo, it said. And there are only "small remnant populations" in Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even more worrisome news came from West Africa, where 12 separate elephant populations have vanished since 2007, including five in Nigeria.
"Poachers have killed off some entire elephant populations in West Africa and could wipe out the remaining forest elephants unless Central African countries act now to arrest the poachers, prosecute the trafficking kingpins, and tackle the corruption that allows wildlife crime to thrive," said a statement by Lamine Sebogo, head of the WWF African elephant program.