The African elephant, iconic, peaceful and innocently grazing, is being killed today in an unsustainable manner. Extinction is unlikely before 2050, but absent concerted global action to save vulnerable herds from Chinese-backed poachers, this century's massive decline in elephant numbers will continue and could easily threaten the ultimate survival of the species.
Of the perhaps 400,000 African elephants roaming the savannahs of southern Africa and East Africa, and the forests of Central Africa and West Africa, about 40,000 are being killed annually for their tusks. In Central Africa – the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon – already many more elephants are dying yearly than are being born. In other areas, scientists estimate that elephant populations are barely matching deaths to births. Only in Botswana are elephant numbers stable or increasing in a truly sustainable manner.
A U.S. National Academy of Sciences study by leading elephant researchers concluded that poaching now and since 2010 has been the key driver of unnatural elephant mortality. "Current off take," it argues, "exceeds the intrinsic growth capacity of the species." In other words, because of this "overharvesting," readers should hurry to Africa some time soon to see elephants in their natural habitats before their numbers decline precipitously and dangerously.
Not surprisingly, the killing of elephants coincides with China's relatively new massive interest in all things African. Chinese industry, much of it state-controlled, has in recent years attempted to gain easy access to African petroleum, iron ore, copper, cobalt, cadmium, gold, diamonds and other precious resources. China also purchases African lumber and other forest products, some harvested illegally, and has established farms throughout the continent and on Africa's off-shore islands.
Millions of Chinese have thus come to Africa, some to settle. So have Chinese ivory syndicates who employ local Africans to raid elephants for their tusks.
In every corner of Africa, Chinese citizens have been caught trying to leave Namibia, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania with smuggled tusks, rhinoceros horn and other illegal animal products. Large shipments of the same items have been confiscated after arriving in Hong Kong and Shanghai from Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Togo. Earlier this year, China, in a move to discourage illicit trade in ivory products, publicly crushed 6.1 tonnes of tusks and art objects made from ivory.
The officials in charge of the pulverization of the ivory would not reveal how much more illegal ivory was held in government warehouses, but they did acknowledge that the ivory in question had been intercepted by customs officials scrutinizing containers from Africa as well as from raids on shops in China selling carvings and other artifacts.
China joined the United States, the Philippines and Gabon in recent public displays of ivory destruction. The U. S. crushed six tonnes in November, the Philippines smashed five tonnes in June and Gabon burned 5 tonnes in 2012. Five tonnes of ivory is worth about $10-million.
In all cases, the ivory in question had been confiscated over many years and had remained in storage. But the acquisition of ivory by rapacious illegal means goes on regardless, almost defying various national efforts to police airports and educate wealthy consumers.
By far the world's largest market for ivory and for rhinoceros horn is in China, followed by Vietnam and Malaysia.
Many Asians ascribe medicinal properties to ground up ivory and consume infusions of rhinoceros horn to ward off cancer. Others in China and neighbouring countries adore carvings or other artistic creation made of ivory, all being regarded as important status symbols.
Wealthy Chinese and Vietnamese, in particular, cherish their ivory objects as designations of wealth and are loath to abandon the quest for such elephant-derived confirmations of their personal importance. In China, ivory fetches about $2,000 a kilogram on the black market. That is enough to send poaching syndicates to Africa and decimate the world's largest land mammal.
South Africa, Kenya and Botswana have successfully slowed poaching through vigorous action against perpetrators, heavy patrolling and the employment of ex-poachers as animal rangers.
But just across South Africa's border in Mozambique, poverty and lack of alternative employment make poaching attractive, especially when it is supported by well-funded foreigners. Tanzania has also suffered, two-thirds of the elephants in the massive Selous National Park having been culled by illegal hunters.
Ultimately, Africans can protect their remaining elephant populations only if China and Vietnam somehow agree to crack down hard on demand. China says it will continue to punish illegal ivory importers and that it will attempt to persuade wealthy Chinese to shun ivory. But, so far, those efforts have been half-hearted.
At a time when the United States has even prohibited the shipment of ivory piano keys into or across its territory, the Chinese can do more to save African elephant populations before it is too late, and before "overharvesting" imperils the existence of an animal that delights tourists and only rarely harms anyone.
Robert I. Rotberg, of the Harvard Kennedy School, is Senior Fellow at CIGI, and last year was Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. His most recent book is Africa Emerges: Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities (2013)