It has becoming remarkably common to see the claim that elephants will become extinct because of poaching in the next 10-12 years. Our august NZ Herald reports this with:
Crush NZ’s seized ivory, petition asks: Campaigners say illegal trade could see African elephant extinct in a decade.
I’ve seen the message on social media like twitter also. So, lets be clear. This is an appalling misrepresentation of the poaching upsurge. If you’re claiming this, then you are conceding that there are two fundamental points that elude you.
- You are not informed about the distribution and rates of poaching of African elephant
- You are unaware that elephants are organisms that are capable of biological reproduction
The oft-reported poaching rate is 35,000 elephants a year. The NZ Herald article reports an astonishing 50,000 elephants a year. The numbers as estimated by the MIKE program in Africa (Monitoring of Illegal Kills of Elephants) are somewhat lower. These numbers are in the region of 20,000-25,000 elephants a year. More importantly, they have been in decline. These numbers aren’t somewhat lower really. They are in dramatic conflict with the 35,000-50,000 number that is being propagated.
The second point seems to elude too many. Elephant populations grow because elephants are in the habit of making more elephants. This is why for most of the previous quarter-century, elephant numbers in African range states- have in aggregate- increased (Table 1). Elephants made more and more elephants.
The prediction of imminent extinction ignores this. It takes an inflated poaching rate, and the total number of elephants (about 500k), and uses the ratio to estimate extinction time. If you take a pessimistic estimate of elephant numbers and the 35,000 then it takes about a decade to reach extinction.
Table 1: African Elephant Population Estimates
(+ possible and speculative population)
The problem is that this ratio is wrong. It drops out the population growth rate of roughly 5% per annum for elephants. Up to 25,000 elephants are being added to the African population (Table 1). This is why poaching didn’t start to deplete numbers until late 2000s (Figure 1).
This addition to elephant populations changes things dramatically. The best information we have (based on MIKE and PIKE studies) is that elephant numbers- if poaching continues unabated- will decline by 20% over the next decade. That is the official conclusion of the IUCN African Summit held in Botswana last year.
Let me point out that there is an enormous difference between 20% and 100%. The difference is the offsetting effect of biological reproduction. Elephants make more elephants.
Yes, we do have a poaching problem. Yes, we should be concerned about it. But we need to proceed by understanding what the problem is and what are the (evidence-backed) solutions. The fundamental problem is that poaching rates in central African range states are about double elsewhere. This is the poaching hotspot. This is the cause of most of the decline. Most of this ivory is being exported in raw form, to Asia. NZ, the US, are all being bypassed in this traffic.
If we look at the US data, seizures of worked pieces (under 10kg) have been tracking down for a long time, and the only reason large seizures haven’t, is they can’t really go any lower (Figure 2). NZ, the US, are not important at the moment for the criminal organizations smuggling ivory.
Figure 2: US Seizure Trends versus Global Raw Ivory
There are some important things we can be doing to help elephants. And there’s a set of fairly useless, distracting, headline-grabbing gestures as well. We can’t be focused on the important things, when we refuse to repair our ignorance about some core facts.