The Journal of African Elephants was created by a group of concerned journalists, biologists and conservationists, who, after years of tracking and documenting the catastrophic decline of Africa’s elephant populations, have recognised the urgent need for a dedicated English and French news and commentary space to enhance and increase global awareness of the plight of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants. Our Commentary service, in particular, are writers that focus on the need to provide awareness of Africa’s elephants and affected surrounding human communities from a distinctly African perspective that, for the most part, is lacking in the dominance of Western media.
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Our Position Statement on the Protection of African Elephants
African elephants are an iconic species with strong environmental, socio-economic and cultural significance for the people of Africa and the world. They are integral to the functioning of the sub-Saharan biomes, performing a key role in shaping plant communities and maintaining the overall health of ecosystems and landscapes that have been shared by wildlife and humans for centuries. Elephants in their natural habitat are also a major draw for hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Africa on safari. Tourism, and increasingly eco-tourism, is one of the primary contributors to the livelihoods of millions of Africans throughout the continent.
However, African elephants and their natural ecosystems are facing existential threats from anthropogenic (human-induced) actions, including habitat destruction, climate change, the commercial trade in ivory, skins and other elephant products as well as live specimens, trophy hunting and, potentially, culling. Since 2007, almost a third of Africa’s entire elephant population has disappeared, and in some places, has been entirely extirpated. If urgent measures are not taken, elephants in the wild may become extinct within a couple of decades.
To prevent the extinction of African elephants we:
- Recognise that elephants are endangered with rapidly declining numbers across the entire continent
Overall, African elephant populations are declining. In the decade between 2007 and 2017, Africa lost one third of its total elephant population. According to the IUCN AfESG, the most recent continental population figure is 415,000, down from around 600,000 in 2007.
These declines have been attributed primarily to a surge in poaching for ivory and meat, as well as the destruction of natural habitat.
In Central Africa, the decline is even more marked, as forest elephant numbers dropped by 62% between 2002–2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range.
Approximately 90% of savanna elephant populations were surveyed systematically in 18 countries during 2014-2015 by The Great Elephant Census (GEC). The results estimated a decline of 30% over the period since 2007, with the annual rate of decline as high as 8% during 2010-2014.
- Recognise that wild elephants within their natural range are pivotal to ecosystems, human health and livelihoods
African elephants play a keystone role in shaping the structure of forests, woodlands and savanna, creating spatial heterogeneity and landscape-level diversity, dispersing seeds and facilitating access to water for a range of other species. The loss of such keystone megafauna from ecosystems could have profound and long-lasting negative effects on ecological structure and function. When elephants’ natural movements are confined by artificial barriers such as fences or human land use blocking dispersal corridors, this habitat modification role may become localised and seen as destructive in relation to the conservation of desirable plant and animal species. There may be calls for culling to reduce numbers. However, this perceived problem is caused by people, not elephants, and the solution is to keep corridors open, not to kill elephants.
More than 70 million tourists visited Africa in 2019, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization – many enticed by safaris, game drives and other opportunities to view elephants in their natural habitat. Between 20 and 30 million Africans earn a livelihood directly or indirectly from such tourism. Elephants are one of the main draws, as the largest of the five most symbolic species of the African landscape. Many communities in conservation landscapes are directly involved in eco-tourism projects, from running safari lodges to giving village tours or selling traditional produce, art and handicrafts. Indirectly, tourism supports a wider economy of restaurants, gas stations, shops, vehicle repair garages, food and beverage production, and many other services.
The solutions to human-elephant coexistence must go beyond eco-tourism, recognising that communities in areas including wildlife habitat depend primarily on subsistence farming and/or livestock husbandry with little or no income. Successful conservation must lie in promoting viable wildlife-compatible rural land use, with the potential for both people and nature to benefit.
Habitat conversion – resulting in the destruction of woodlands and forests – and the disruptive effects of commercial trade in wildlife (including live elephants, elephant meat, skins and ivory) have the potential of bringing people into direct contact with wild populations, and increasing the spread of zoonotic diseases among humans and their domestic stock.
- Support the international ban on the legal trade in ivory
The international legal trade in ivory was the primary cause of the rapid decline in African elephant numbers. Before an international ban on the commercial sales of ivory came into effect in 1990, the African elephant population had declined dramatically by over a half between 1975 and 1989. The legal trade in ivory is now known to fuel demand and accelerate the poaching of elephants, providing cover for the growing illicit trafficking of ivory. Immediately after the ban, poaching decreased and remained low for almost two decades, but decisions to partially lift the ban in 1999 and, particularly, 2007 saw immediate spikes in poaching of elephants. The 2008 sale of 108 tons of national ivory stockpiles from southern Africa to China and Japan is clearly linked to the rapid decline of elephant populations by a third between 2007 and 2015. A study by Hsiang and Sekar found that the 2008 ivory sale corresponded with an abrupt 66% increase in illegal ivory trafficking in both Africa and Asia, and a possible ten-fold increase in its trend. An estimated 71% increase in ivory smuggled out of Africa was also recorded.
- Support the full protection of elephants through listing in Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
All Africa’s elephants should be listed under Appendix I, which bans commercial trade in African elephants or their parts. Currently, four southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) have their elephants listed under Appendix II, which allows commercial trade under certain conditions. Split-listing is detrimental to the full protection of the species, as it sends the mixed message to potential consumers and to traffickers that the door remains open to a future partial lifting on the international ban of legal ivory sales. Split-listing also fails to address the migratory nature of the species by imposing political and geographical boundaries and restrictions.
- Support the closure of legal domestic markets globally
Many domestic ivory markets are still legal within countries around the world. A legal trade maintains consumer demand for ivory, fuelling elephant poaching and illicit trafficking.
- Support stronger ivory stockpile management and accountability and stockpile destruction
Ivory stockpiling and sales of stockpiles sustain or increase demand for ivory, fuel poaching, and allow the leakage of illegal ivory into the market. Evidence is now clear that national stockpile sales increase poaching of elephants and the illicit trafficking of ivory. Destruction of stockpiles puts the ivory beyond economic use and sends a clear message to end consumers and their criminal suppliers.
- Oppose live elephant exports beyond in situ elephant range
Exports of African elephants beyond their natural range have no conservation value, and do not generate significant funds for conservation projects or for the livelihoods of local communities. There are serious, well-documented, welfare issues with the capture, transport and housing of wild elephants.
- Oppose trophy hunting and culling of African elephants
Trophy hunting and culling serve neither to generate funds for conservation nor for meaningful improvement of human livelihoods. Trophy hunting is detrimental to the genetic and social structures of the species populations it targets, and removal of key components of natural ecosystems is detrimental to non-trophy species and the overall biodiversity. Trophy hunting has exacerbated the decline in elephants through selective removal of the biggest, most successful breeding males and unsustainable and unregulated over-hunting. It also perpetuates the damaging concept that a sentient species holds a commercial, and exploitable, value higher at the time of death than when alive.
Culling, as a conservation management tool, does not mitigate against elephant induced habitat destruction in unfenced areas. Lethal removal of animals disrupts natural population regulation and dispersal mechanisms and leaves the survivors stressed and disturbed. In fenced areas, non-lethal mitigation techniques such as in situ translocation may be used as alternatives to culling. Ultimately, however, the best solution is to maintain open corridors between elephant conservation areas on land shared with people, so that natural population processes can occur.
- Oppose the captive use of live elephants for zoos, circuses and other forms of entertainment such as elephant-back riding
Wild elephants are naturally cautious of humans and any tactile interaction with them is stressful. Training techniques for such interactions frequently involve corporal punishment, tethering and/or food deprivation. This treatment is physically and mentally damaging to the animals involved and does not consider the best interests of the individual animal. There is no educational or conservation value in watching elephants perform unnaturally.