Can We Win the Ivory Wars? 4 Hopeful Signs

herd of elephants at sunset

Herd of elephants in African savanna at sunset. (© muha04)

African elephants are in trouble. Scientists estimate that Africa harbored up to 7 million elephants in the 1930s. Today, the population is below 300,000 – that’s less than 5% of historic numbers. Currently between 25,000 and 30,000 elephants are being killed each year, ensuring the functional extinction of this magnificent keystone species within a couple of decades.

Things are particularly dire in several countries in Central and East Africa, where large populations of elephants exist in countries with regional instability and porous international borders, and where ecotourism is the lifeblood of the economy. Every year in parks across the region, wildlife rangers are killed protecting elephants.

Over the last several months, a rising international coalition of some unlikely partners is giving new vitality to the fight against the ongoing slaughter of African elephants. My report from the front lines of the ivory wars in northern Kenya is scheduled to air this Sunday on “CBS Sunday Morning.”  Here’s a clip.

There are four signs I can point to that suggest that the tide might have chance to turn for the future of these creatures.

1. Increased anti-poaching efforts in Africa

African countries are using sophisticated technology and a well trained and armed ranger force to track elephants and find poachers. Our CBS News crew went out with a crack squad on a night patrol where thermal imaging, informants and a military-style command and control system were used to mobilize rangers.

Countries are also redoubling their efforts to prevent ivory from being shipped abroad (3.8 tons was captured in January alone in Togo, West Africa) and leveling unprecedented penalties on foreign nationals convicted of ivory smuggling.

High-level African government officials are also signaling intolerance for the destabilizing force of poaching and illegal wildlife trade, with the presidents of Botswana, Tanzania, Gabon and Chad spearheading a response at the recent London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. President Ian Khama went even further, outlawing hunting in Botswana. Khama, who is a CI board member, also offered to host the next illegal wildlife summit in 2015.

2. Expanded engagement from China

With China’s rising middle class fueling the demand for ivory, the trade cannot be curbed unless the demand is too. Representatives from China attended and signed on to the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. Recently, China also crushed and destroyed a confiscated haul of six tons of ivory, with Hong Kong committing to destroying 28 tons over the next two years.

There is also evidence that public outreach programs are starting to have an effect on consumers of ivory trinkets. For example, the government has started sending text messages to every Chinese national who lands in Nairobi, Kenya, warning them not to purchase ivory.

3. Greater attention and funding from the U.S.

The U.S. government has signaled increased attention and funding for illegal wildlife trade symbolized by a recent massive crush of confiscated ivory and President Obama’s recent announcement to put the United States Justice, State and Interior departments to work on curbing illegal wildlife trade across the globe. This effort was no doubt inspired by media reports highlighting how wildlife poaching funds international terrorist groups. He has also earmarked $10 million to fight poaching in Africa.

4. New commitments from the global conservation community

A collection of international conservation organizations including CI, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF and the African Wildlife Foundation joined in an unprecedented partnership through the Clinton Global Initiative to fund and facilitate the battle against ivory poaching by focusing efforts on 50 priority elephant sites, hire over 3,000 new guards, and strengthen training at 10 transit points in several African nations. The partnership commits $80 million to the effort, and seeks to raise an additional $70 million in in-kind support and financial aid.

While momentum is building for a comprehensive solution to the bloody ivory wars, elephants in Africa are far from safe. Each day over 100 elephants are killed in Africa, more on or near full moon nights when poachers can spot their quarry more easily. The pressure is ratcheting up and the tide might turn, but as Ian Craig, a Kenyan conservationist, suggested to me, the war is impossible to win until the demand ebbs.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI.


  1. Franky Duppa says

    South Africa is noticeably absent in any real intention to curb this dreadful practice. Why is this not being more remarked upon by other countries who appear to be trying to reduce this carnage? They should be called to account.

    1. Lynda Corkum says

      I agree. South Africa is one of the hardest hit by poachers, yet they don’t appear to be making any effort towards stopping it. They sent no representative to the London Summit and they haven’t changed any laws regarding wildlife crime. It makes one wonder if perhaps the government itself may benefit from “looking the other way”. A very poor image to project to the rest of the world who are making large monetary contributions and efforts to help stop the scourge of poaching!

  2. Tisha says

    As always, hoping we can pull this off and avoid decimating the species. How much of this applies to our rhino as well? Can we or will we be able to save them from extinction?
    A world without either of them is heartbreaking and unimaginable.

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