An international effort to halt the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks has all but collapsed in most of Africa, leaving...

Share story

WASHINGTON — An international effort to halt the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks has all but collapsed in most of Africa, leaving officials and advocates alarmed about the survival of the species. A study, to be released today, estimates that as many as 23,000 animals were slaughtered last year alone.

A team of wildlife and law-enforcement experts concluded that a widely hailed 1989 ban on international sales of ivory has been overwhelmed in the face of exploding demand for ivory in Japan and newly rich China and declining support for anti-poaching programs.

“Right now, things are really much worse than before the ban,” said Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, lead author of the report funded jointly by the U.S. government and several nonprofit groups.

“Almost half of Africa’s elephants had been slaughtered in the eight years before the ban, but now the situation is even more extreme because the number of animals is so much lower to begin with,” he said. “And unlike in the late ’80s, the public has forgotten about this issue.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Wasser said poaching poses a renewed threat to the survival of regional herds in many countries and to the entire subspecies of forest elephants, which he said is now being “annihilated” in central Africa.

Wasser said reports of a rebound in elephant numbers had produced a distorted view of the situation. Of the roughly 400,000 elephants in the African wild, he said, about 130,000 are in Botswana, where they are well protected to the point that they have overbred. Of the 270,000 elephants elsewhere in Africa, more than 23,000 — nearly one in 10 — were killed last year alone, the researchers estimated.

The estimate is based on the 54,000 pounds of ivory confiscated in a dozen international seizures in the year ended August 2006, and an assumption by law-enforcement officials that they seize only 10 percent of all smuggled contraband. Ivory is in demand for jewelry and, most commonly, for prized “hankos” used to stamp personal seals and signatures in parts of East Asia.

“This is a very complex situation because people read these days about elephant overpopulation in places like Botswana, and how elephants are coming more and more into deadly contact with people,” Wasser said. “But that’s one small piece of the story.

“Overwhelmingly, what we have across Africa is a widespread slaughter of elephants that is getting worse by the day.”

The report said the ban on international ivory sales was effective at first, in large part because wealthy nations provided money to police game parks and go after poachers. Elephant populations rebounded substantially — especially in southern Africa — but as more exceptions to the ban were allowed and money to the fight poachers was cut back, illegal killings resumed.

Compounding the problem, ivory smuggling has become increasingly the province of organized crime, with narcotics and other contraband often being shipped with the tusks. Ivory prices have skyrocketed, Wasser said, and the incentives for killing elephants for their tusks have never been higher.

Wasser’s report is available in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.