The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that over 35,000 elephants were killed in 2013. Poachers are slaughtering the animals across Africa, and with demand for ivory rising in Asia, the species is nearing the point of no return.
Ivory is prized as a luxury item in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. Commercial trade was banned by CITES in 1989, though it has had little effect on poaching. In the 1980s, the elephant population in Africa was about 1 million. Today, it’s less than half that number.
In 2008, researchers, including Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, predicted that large groups of elephants would be extinct by 2020 if poaching was not curbed. “If the trend continues,” said Wasser, “there won’t be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them.”
In 2014, the efforts to stop elephant killing have been largely unsuccessful. High demand and its legal scarcity have caused the price of ivory to soar, and most elephants are killed in the process of digging it out of their skulls. “Ivory is beautiful,” conservationist and African ranger Rory Young told the Huffington Post. “The problem is, we just can’t do this anymore.”
Young has spent the last twenty years training wildlife protection teams and traveling the continent to raise awareness against poaching, but he continues to encounter fresh elephant corpses in national parks.
And poachers are lethal to cross. Often armed with machine guns and snares, they’re also not above using more passive methods of murder. In 2013, over 300 elephants were killed in Zimbabwe after poachers added cyanide to waterholes in Hwange National Park.
Young is certain that the time will come – soon – when elephants will almost completely disappear. It needs to be stopped, but the effort must come from all quarters.
“This is not just one group,” he said. “It’s not the African poachers, it’s not China, it’s everyone. It takes governments in Africa actually doing something about the poachers on the ground; it takes an education system to teach the people – kids in the schools, the villagers – telling them it’s wrong. The same applies to people in Asia, who are buying the stuff. It shouldn’t be easy to buy ivory. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.”