As many as 100,000 elephants fell victim to poaching in just two years, between 2010 and 2012.
In the elephant poaching world, poachers target males first because they have the largest tusks and then they move on to females. You’d think this latter move would break up elephant societies, as they are matriarchal, but that isn’t the case.
So how do elephant societies survive such an aggressive onslaught?
A new study found that the elephants’ extended families are stepping up to lead the societies when matriarchs were killed. The elephants’ social structure is maintained because the middle-aged females – who were now the oldest in the group – took over leadership roles. These females had enough social knowledge to recreate patterns they learned from the elders.
The study reviewed 16 years of data on elephants from Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, tracking which individual elephants associated themselves with others. The elephants were identified by ear shape, body markings, or other unique characteristics.
A lot is going wrong in the world of conservation, from the poaching crisis and wildlife trade to deforestation and illegal logging, and beyond. Still, we did see some major victories for animals last year. Here are 3 big wins for wildlife in 2015:
“Two of the most powerful heads of state want an end to all ivory trade. That’s only good news for elephants, and we call upon all governments to follow suit. Once both nations definitively take this action, ivory trafficking will begin to fall, and the number of elephants could rise again.”
A lot happened for for oceans in 2015: in July, the Philippines created its first sanctuary for the declining shark and ray populations. In September, New Zealand banned fishing, oil exploration, mining and other human disturbances in an area of ocean twice the size of the country itself. And in November, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to protect coral reefs and marine wildlife in the 90-miles of ocean between the two countries.
In 2015, we witnessed the tragic killing of Cecil the lion. But that catapulted the poaching issue, and the search for solutions, into the public eye. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to give the African lion endangered species protections. In addition, 45 commercial airlines banned the transportation of hunting trophies from lions, elephants and rhinos in 2015.
A government survey showed that over the past five years, the number of elephants in Mozambique has dropped from 20,000 to 10,300 due to poaching.
That’s a 48% decline in just five years. And 95% of those elephant deaths occurred in remote northern Mozambique, which has the Niassa National Reserve, reducing the region’s population from 15,400 to 6,100.
The drastic decline is due to the illegal wildlife trade and a lack of governance. Many of the poachers came to Mozambique from Tanzania, where the market was bleak from its decimated elephant population.
“The major issue is one of governance. The north has always been a remote and poorly governed area, with an underlying level of corruption. Some district police and border guards are being paid off, some even rent out their own firearms.”
Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, has been slow to start fighting the poaching problem. Before June 2014, poachers were simply fined for illegal possession of a weapon. But after international pressure, the country adopted a new law criminalizing the killing of protected animals.
In May, Mozambique police completed the country’s biggest-ever search and acquisition of illegal wildlife products. They seized 1.3 tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn – the outcome of killing about 200 animals.
Sadly, an estimated 30,000 elephants in Africa are killed illegally for the ivory trade each year. There are around 470,000 wild elephants left in Africa, according to a survey by Elephants Without Borders. A century ago, there were several million.
Thailand destroyed more than two tons of ivory in August, sending a loud and clear message in the fight against wildlife trade.
The industrial crusher in Bangkok ground up elephant tusks, carved ivory and other trinkets – most of which came from elephants poached in Africa. Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha led the event, and was joined by government representatives, international diplomats and conservationists.
“Thailand’s ivory destruction is more than just a symbolic event since it follows a series of important steps that the country has taken to tackle illegal ivory trade in the past year. For too long Thailand has been exploited by wildlife criminals as both a gateway and marketplace for ivory poached in Africa and Asia. This event aligns the commitment of the Thai government and the will of the Thai people with the global priority of stopping the illegal ivory trade.”
The ivory destruction occurred after several important laws passed to combat the illegal ivory trade. Approximately 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their ivory, which then makes its way to other countries. And for years, Thailand was home to the world’s largest unregulated ivory market. But after facing intense global pressure and potential trade sanctions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the country is now cracking down on the issue.
This year, the Thai government passed several important laws and regulations on the trade, and implemented a National Ivory Action Plan. For it, all ivory had to be registered by April 21, which resulted in people reporting more than 220 tons of elephant ivory. In April alone, Thai Customs seized more than 7 tons of illegal African ivory. The government also declared that the African elephant is now a protected species in Thailand.
“Considerable progress has been made this year but there will be challenges ahead with implementing these new regulations, clamping down on illegal traders and reducing demand.”
But Thailand continues to send messages to the world about its determination to put an end to ivory trafficking and wildlife crime. In July, Thailand co-sponsored a historic UN General Assembly resolution to address illegal wildlife trade. And the ivory destruction in August only reinforced its stance.
The two largest markets for ivory are working together to put an end to its illegal trade. The U.S. and China have agreed to enact almost a complete ban on the import and export of ivory to help minimize elephant poaching.
The ban covers “significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies” and unspecified “significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” It follows China’s decision in May to phase out the legal, domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products.
China is the largest market for poached ivory and the U.S. is estimated to be the second largest. Slashing the supply of ivory to the Chinese market is critical to decreasing the number of African elephant deaths due to poaching.
According to a March 2015 survey by WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and Save The Elephants, support for this ivory trade ban is high. 95% of people surveyed in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou believed the government should impose the ivory ban. In addition, the survey showed that awareness about ivory poaching increased by 50% since 2012.
The White House said that the U.S. and China would cooperate with other nations in a complete effort to fight the wildlife trade.
Elephants, rhinos, hippopotamuses, gorillas and several other of the world’s largest herbivores are in danger of becoming extinct. According to a study by an international team of scientists, not only will the current trends be devastating to these animals but they will also have serious consequences for the ecosystems in which they live and other species as well.
The study, called “Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores,” was published in the open-access online journal Science Advances in May. In their research, scientists studied 74 different species of herbivores that weigh an average of 220 pounds at adulthood – essentially the size of reindeer or larger. They found that 60% of species in the study are now considered threatened. UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and study co-author Blaire Van Valkenburgh says:
“For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct — and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores. Even though an individual elephant or rhino might persist in the wild somewhere in Africa, they will be functionally extinct in terms of their impact on the ecosystem.”
The study explains that the two largest threats to these animals are hunting and habitat loss. Other factors include increasing human populations and competition with livestock, particularly in developing nations where livestock production tripled from 1980 to 2002.
Research showed that:
From 2002 and 2011, the number of forest elephants decreased by 62%.
From 2007 to 2013, the number of poached rhinos jumped from 13 to 1,004 per year.
From 2010 to 2012, more than 100,000 elephants or one-fifth of the world’s wild savannah elephant population were poached.
Van Valkenburgh says:
“Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets. If this were to keep up, there would be very few or no savannah elephants in 10 years, and no African rhinos in 20 years.”
One major problem is that the financial incentive for hunting these animals is huge. For instance, rhino horns are more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine, reaching as high as $60,000 per pound in Asia. Because of this, the study proposes creating counter financial incentives for people living near the animals to safeguard them, so it would become more profitable to protect the animals than to poach them. The study also stresses the need for social marketing and education campaigns to drive down demand for animal products as food and consumer goods.
The scientists say:
“Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already largely been lost from much of the developed world. Now is the time to act boldly, because without radical changes in these trends, the extinctions that eliminated most of the world’s largest herbivores 10,000 to 50,000 years ago will only have been postponed for these last few remaining giants.”
The study also notes that the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended around 11,700 years ago, saw more than 40 species of herbivores in which adults weighed 2,200 pounds or more, but today there are only eight. The extinction of these “mega-herbivores” has drastically influenced our planet’s ecosystems. For example, large herbivores are the primary food source for predators and scavengers and the way they walk over and consume plants affects how vegetation grows. In addition, they are relied on for food on by humans, especially in developing nations, with an estimated 1 billion people depending on wild meat to survive.
The conclusion to the study states:
“Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs.”