Future for Elephants – 2017 – the year in review

At the start of a new year we ponder what happened in the previous year, and what the new year will have in store. Which developments concerning elephants did we see in 2017, and how do they influence their chance of survival? 

Poaching and Elephant Populations

Although we can observe a decline in poaching in Africa, it is important to take the low number of 460,000 elephants on the continent of Africa into consideration. In East Africa poaching dropped to the levels before 2008, i.e. prior to the highest poaching statistics. Kenya and Rwanda reported an increase in the elephant population. Mixed messages were received from the following countries: in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park a decline in poaching of 72% can be reported since the beginning of 2017, whereas in Niassa National Park poaching continues unabated. In the Zakouma National Park located in Chad, an increase in elephant numbers can be observed, whereas in another region of the same country poaching is on the rise. Not one single elephant was poached in Zimbabwe's Bumi Hills during the last two years. In and around Hwange National Park many elephants were found, all of which died due to cyanide poisoning.  At least 32 elephants fell victim to the poison.

Elephant poaching in Namibia, in Kruger National Park in South Africa – as well as in Botswana –  is continuously increasing.

Above all, the dramatic decline in the population of forest elephants, especially in the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, gives reason for concern. In the Minkebe National Park, which is located in the Gabonese Republic, 25,000 forest elephants - which is approximately 80% of the former population - are missing, and in Guinea one could not even find enough elephants to be able to count them. It has been reported that the devastating deforestations of the chocolate industry have reduced the Ivory Coast's elephant population dramatically. 

In Tanzania, the Serengeti National Park as well as Selous Game Reserve faces a loss of habitats due to dams being built. 

And so the number of elephants is continuously decreasing all over Africa – and not only poaching is to blame for this, but also the loss of habitats, human-wildlife conflict and trophy hunting.

Looking at Asia, one can notice an increase in elephants deaths especially in Myanmar. In India one elephant is being killed every four days. 

Smuggling and Seizure of ivory

Ivory smuggling and trafficking has been rife for the past six years.  The only thing that did change is the fact, that raw ivory is now often processed in Africa and carvings are being exported, as opposed to raw ivory. In Africa, South Sudan and Uganda have been identified as hubs of wildlife trafficking. In Asia, the Golden Triangle in-between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar is a centre for uncontrolled, illegal wildlife trafficking, with Laos being the fastest growing ivory market worldwide.  Not to forget North Korea, which contributes to the extinction of many species due to wildlife trafficking.

In 2016, confiscations of illegal ivory reached an all-time record high, but also in 2017 huge amounts of illegal ivory were confiscated.  The largest numbers of illegal tusks as well as objects carved from ivory were confiscated in the African countries Uganda, Mozambique, Gabon, Senegal and Nigeria. For the first time an extremely high number of elephants' tails was discovered – 53 of which were confiscated in the Ivory Coast, 81 in Cameroon.  Cameroon is also the African country with the largest number of confiscated tusks: 500!

In Asia - apart from Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Qatar- ivory was also confiscated in Vietnam, altogether 5 tons. In what was the biggest ivory bust ever, Hong Kong customs confiscated the record breaking amount of 7 tons of tusks – equal to 720 elephants.

Destruction of ivory

In 2017, only in India and New York ivory has been destroyed. Cambodia and Tanzania commented publicly that they had no intention to destroy their respective stockpiles.  In Tanzania alone, 118 tons of the so called white gold is stored in stockpiles - a potential danger to the elephants, as this huge amount implies the prospective continuation of future trade.  Zambia clearly expressed their wish to sell its 37 tons of ivory.

Human-Elephant Conflict

Increasingly, we receive news from Africa relating to conflicts between the local human population and wild elephants.

Not only Uganda, Botswana and Tanzania were bearers of bad news, but also Kenya: entire regions in the North were swamped by marauding armed nomads and herdsmen, who were forced by the ongoing droughts to move to other areas, killing off countless wild animals along the way. Herdsmen drove their herds into game reserves, forcing the game to migrate to unprotected areas - which resulted in conflicts in those areas.

One of the few remaining big tuskers, Little Male, was killed in Amboseli National Park because he supposedly had killed a farmer. 

Trade in live elephants

At the 69th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES which was held in November 2017, the topic of trade in live elephants has finally been made a focal point.  A document drawn up by concerned institutions (mainly HIS – Humane Society International - and ATE – Amboseli Trust for Elephants) has also been signed by Future for Elephants e.V. and has been submitted subsequently.

The importance of an improved regulation or rather the ban of trading live elephants is obvious: in December 2017, 30 baby elephants were captured – stolen away from their families - in Zimbabwean game reserves to be shipped off to China, where they are to spend their lives in captivity in various zoos.  Namibia has been planning to export five baby elephants to Dubai - but thanks to ongoing protests the matter is still pending. Sadly, Sri Lanka has lifted its domestic ban to use baby elephants captured in the wild in temples. 

Trophy Hunting

Although elephants are threatened with extinction, 1000 of the pachyderms were allowed to be trophy hunted in 2017 in Africa.  A new study confirms a fact denied by the hunting industry: trophy hunting may indeed be one cause of extinction. Between 2001 and 2015 81,572 trophies of African elephants were exported. According to journalists' reports, even females are being trophy hunted now in certain areas of Namibia, in order to adhere to the hunting licenses already sold. Trophy hunters visiting German fairs were offered hunting licenses in Zimbabwe. Licenses for females without tusks were offered at a discount price.

Christian Felix, founding member of Future for Elephants e.V.,   handed over his petition (with almost 200,000 signatures) against the import of hunting trophies of endangered species to state secretary Flasbarth (Ministry of the Environment and Nature Conservation).  Unfortunately, the Ministry is not yet willing to stop the imports.

Desert Elephants

Another petition was started by our member Iris Koch: Within an extremely short time the petition against the hunting of desert elephants was signed by 58,000 people and duly perceived by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, without even having been handed over to them. Three hunting licenses were issued to hunt extremely rare desert elephant bulls in the Ugab-Region, which prompted Iris Koch to start the petition. Desert elephants, which are adapted to live in arid environments, are currently found only in Namibia and Mali - and in order to protect their last remaining desert elephants, Mali has deployed a special unit.

Elephant Skin

A development that gives reason for concern is the increase in poaching elephants for their skins. Especially in Myanmar one elephant is being killed every single week - not only for its tusks but for its skin.  In Zimbabwe, where elephants have a lower level of protection compared to most other countries, it is legal to trade with elephant skins and the market is therefore experiencing a boom. During the last decade, at least 70,000 elephants died for the leather industry.

Countries and Actions Taken

Liberia is in the process of reinforcing the protection of elephants and Uganda is about to introduce a stricter wildlife protection law. In Tanzania criminals were sentenced to 12-30 years in prison for the illegal possession of ivory. One poacher was caught who is suspected to have poisoned more than 100 elephants in Zimbabwe's Hwange Nation Park. South Sudan closed down its domestic ivory market for ten years. 

In Asia, Singapore is planning a domestic ban on ivory trade. In Taiwan, the domestic ban on ivory trade is to come into effect in 2019. Thailand's campaign to protect elephants has achieved a 58% decline in ivory trade.

The legal ivory trade in Japan remains at an alarming level because it is ill-controlled and therefore encourages smuggling. In the summer of 2017,  Rakuten, the world's biggest online platform for ivory, at last put a ban on all ivory products; whereas Yahoo Japan refuses to take their ivory products offline.  In 2017, Japan has come into the focus of many nature conservation organisations for refusing to close down its domestic ivory trade. Future for Elephants e.V.  started a campaign with an open letter to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. The letter includes important demands and was signed by another 28 organisations. 

In Hong Kong the planned trade ban was discussed numerous times by the government representatives and an international consultation about the topic was held. Future for Elephants e.V. therefore sent Shubert Mwarabu, a Tanzanian singer and environmentalist, as an ambassador for Africa to press for an immediate and complete trade ban in Hong Kong.  We will learn next year about the progress of the planned trade ban in Hong Kong.

China kept its promise and shut down 67 state-funded ivory carving factories and shops end of March 2017. The remaining 105 factories were shut down end of December 2017. The effects could already be felt: the price of ivory plummeted and is currently only half of what it was three years ago.  As was to be expected, ivory smugglers and buyers have moved their activities to other regions,  e.g. Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Within China the focus has now shifted to mammoth ivory, which may still be purchased legally.

Australia plans a domestic trade ban for ivory, whereas Israel opposes a domestic ban.

After the ban in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the new hub for U.S. ivory sales is now Washington D.C. Only Nevada and Hawaii introduced new bans. Other states plan domestic bans.

In the United Kingdom – the world's largest legal ivory exporter – Prince William pushed for the trade ban to be supported. In 2017, Ministers engaged in discussions about a stricter trade ban and a representative population survey was carried out (ending 29th December 2017). Out of 60,000 replies received, the vast majority was in favour of the trade ban.

It has become more and more evident that Europe is a hub for illegal wildlife trade, both as destination country, transit country and also for export.  Especially in recent years, the number of exports has increased. More than once the AEC (African Elephant Coalition) urged the European Union to get more involved in elephant protection programs. The EU's reactions so far were mediocre. At least the export of antique raw ivory has been banned as of 1st July 2017. Since carved (and otherwise processed) pieces are still allowed to be traded, and the market within Europe is still open, there are still big loopholes for illegal ivory. What is unfathomable is the fact that as of June 2017, the EU has lifted the ban on elephant trophies from Tanzania. In a representative population survey on ivory trade held in the European Union, 80,000 replies were received by 8th December 2017. The results unfortunately will not be presented until July 2018. 

One step in the right direction was the passing of a resolution by the EU parliament, pressing for the closure of the ivory market, joint sanctions against wildlife trafficking and curbing the import of hunting trophies. 

Thefts in the zoo in Magdeburg and the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe delivered proof of just how popular ivory is, also in Germany.  And in Erfurt a Vietnamese citizen was caught with a rhino horn and 5 ivory carvings at a total value of EUR 600 000 in his luggage.

2017 was also the founding year of Future for Elephants e.V.  Besides all activities listed above we also organised demonstrations in four German cities for the event Global  March for Elephants and Rhinos. 

We sincerely hope to contribute more to the protection of the grey giants thus enabling the survival of their species!