from Africa in Transition

Elephant Population Tipping Points and Domestic American Ivory Markets

August 27, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard. Emily is a researcher at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London, England, and former research associate for the CFR Africa program.

The BBC reported on August 18 that in the past four years, approximately thirty-five thousand elephants have been poached for their ivory annually. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a tipping point has been reached in elephant populations: more elephants are dying than being born. The population is in decline due to the international demand for ivory.

The BBC article states that the main targets of poachers are the large bulls, mature females, and matriarchs in their prime. They bear the longest, most impressive tusks. This means that poachers are killing the leaders of herds and picking off the healthiest breeding elephants. Not only are they reducing the number of living elephants, they are decreasing the capacity of the remaining elephants to reproduce. Elephants have long memories and care and nurture their young for years. The matriarchs pass their knowledge of watering holes, salt licks, migration paths, and more on to the younger generations. The eradication of the leadership in a herd destroys the accumulated wisdom and “shred[s] the [social] fabric” of that herd, decreasing its capacity to keep the remaining elephants alive.

The U.S. is home to the world’s second largest ivory market, following China. A significant portion of worked ivory brought into the U.S. also comes from China, feeding its own demand. Eliminating demand for ivory and horn is essential to saving Africa’s wildlife, and significant responsibility lies on Americans to decrease it. Those who follow conservation issues–or at least receive the emails–will have noticed an increase in the number of campaigns and petitions to ban ivory in the U.S., and announcements of successes and failures in that endeavour. As the threat to the world’s largest land animals continues, it remains to be seen how effective these measures will be on reducing the domestic American market for ivory.

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