Based on monitoring surveys and data gathered this year, conservation agencies have concluded that the African elephant, the largest remaining land mammal on the planet, is facing the greatest crisis in decades. A report issued in March based on these figures concludes that the reasons for this are clear: "A rising demand for illegal ivory in the rapidly growing economies of Asia" has ensured that "the weight of ivory behind this trade has more than doubled since 2007, and is over three times greater than it was in 1998."
Coming from a collection of influential international conservation agencies certainly adds gravitas to their conclusions, but for many the message is not new. The Environmental Investigation Agency and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, among others, have both sounded the alarm bells over the past two years, and conservation NGO's working on the ground, particularly in Central and West Africa have been filing gruesome details of the slaughter with increasing regularity since 2006.
Central Africa alone is reported to have lost 62 per cent of its elephants since 2002, and with losses so severe, the Elephants in the Dust report warns the "alarming declines" in parts of Central and West Africa have put the species at risk of local extinction.
Unsurprisingly, East Africa has not escaped the carnage either. Earlier this year I was tasked by an international agency to review the poaching situation in Tanzania, and the population counts done by the country's own researchers tell of the staggering toll. The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) has been doing counts since 1976 with the most recent taking place in 2011. But because the results, known to the agency and certain scientists, are thought to be so alarming, they are unlikely to ever be released. Sources suggest that Tanzania's elephant population may already be below the 40,000 level, which is way down from more than 140,000 in the 2004 survey.
The bottom line here is that the conservation community no longer needs statistics to highlight the most significant onslaught against elephants since the 1970's and 1980's when a similar surge in poaching killed somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 animals. And we don't need any further proof that it's the illegal trade in ivory that is fuelling the slaughter.
Instead, the critical questions are how long before the poaching syndicates turn their guns and machetes on the herds of southern Africa, and what lessons have we learnt from the previous poaching crisis and the attempts to regulate trade in ivory?
According to most sources, southern Africa carries somewhere between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the continents elephants, and to date these have not been impacted in the same manner by the poaching. But given what we know about the assault on the regions rhino populations and the nature of organized crime, this scenario could very well change sooner rather than later.
But for many, this crisis is not only about the death tally – it also embraces the folly of allowing a trade in ivory that fuels the poaching. And let's cut right to the chase here; the previous crisis was clearly only halted with the introduction of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ivory ban in 1989. Ivory prices dropped significantly and within months the poaching was substantially reduced, certainly enough to allow a sustained recovery in the elephant populations across the continent.
However, rather than consolidate the situation, CITES then foolishly ventured back into the markets. No doubt buoyed by the success of the trade ban, and nudged by various southern African states wanting to cash-in on their ivory stockpiles, they allowed two one-off sales; 55 tons to Japan in 1999, and then in 2008 just over 100 tons went mostly to China. These moves have since proven to be misguided as instead of reducing prices and stemming the poaching and flow of illegal ivory, the reverse has happened.
The Elephants in the Dust report, along with those put out by the EIA and IFAW amongst others have all produced the data corroborating this, as have they showing the extent of growth in the Chinese demand for ivory. They have also described how the systems and regulations dealing with trade in China are out of control, and we now understand the links between ivory smuggling and other forms of criminality involving drugs, weapons and terrorism. The is now $2,000/kg, way up from the official $157/kg paid at the 2008 auction.
According to Jason Bell of the IFAW, allowing trade will play a central role in fuelling the crisis, "The reality is that no one understands the extent of demand for ivory, especially in China. What we do know, however, is that it is increasing and the market seems to be bottomless. Previous experimental trade has shown quite clearly that the legal trade serves to stimulate markets and thus poaching and illicit trade."
Given these circumstances, and with far fewer elephants than the 1960s, the stakes and potential consequences for the continental population are likely to be substantially greater this time around. And it's why the next CITES COP meeting, due in 2016, is shaping up to be another crunch period for the species. Trade will no doubt again top the agenda's, so that leaves just over two years to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. There is no logical or justifiable reason to present the criminal syndicates with a ready-made platform to launder their poached ivory. It's also high time this continent let China know its behaviour is unacceptable and that elephants are not for sale.
Ian Michler is a wilderness guide, photojournalist and naturalist who has lived and worked across Africa for the last 22 years.