We’ve saved the African Elephant before, and we can do it again. And East Africa will be a key player in our success. A just released report by the United Nations * summarizes the current blood ivory crises, identifying East Africa -specifically the countries of Kenya and Tanzania – as key components in stopping the trade of ivory.


We’ve saved African Elephants before

Prior to 1970, Eastern Africa was home to the largest elephant populations on the African continent, but their numbers declined rapidly from 1970 through 1989 from poaching. CITES (The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) reported a loss of 300,000 African elephants – almost one third of Africa’s total population – to poaching between 1986 and 1989 alone, and other sources say 700,000 to 1 million were killed during the 1980’s.


Then in 1989 an International Ban on Ivory went into effect, protecting elephants and causing their numbers to grow dramatically in Southern and Eastern Africa since that time (until the recent crisis). The 1989 ban on ivory (and the subsequent rebound in the African elephant population) was so effective it is considered one of conservation’s great success stories.


The Good News

During that ban we learned some things. First, we saw how effective the ban on ivory was in stopping the illegal trade. And secondly, we learned that when protected, elephants can recover quickly. Despite their long gestation period (22-months) female elephants remain reproductive into their 50’s, allowing populations to grow by as much as 7% per year.


So What Happened?

In 1999 the decade long ban on ivory was lifted due to pressure from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana who wanted to sell their stock pile of elephant tusks (Zimbabwe alone had the tusks from 1,000 elephants in storage). At the time, many conservationists expressed concern that lifting the ban would open a new surge of poaching and rekindle demand.


That’s Exactly What Happened….But Worse.

This new poaching crisis (beginning in 2007) is very different than the past. While much of the previous poaching in Africa may have been opportunistic, this new wave of poaching is the work of dedicated poaching ‘cartels’. These groups cross borders and involve non-state armed groups, particularly Somali gangs using expatriate Chinese residents in East Africa as the most important middlemen.


East Africa is home to most of the remaining African Elephants and based on rough estimates, there are currently around 140,000 elephants in Eastern Africa. And that is exactly where these ‘cartels’ are focusing their poaching efforts.


The UN report estimates between 5,600 and 15,400 elephants are now poached in Eastern Africa annually, producing between 56 and 154 metric tons of illicit ivory, about two-thirds (37 tons) of which is headed for Asia, especially China.

At US$850 per kilogram, this flow was worth around US$30 million in 2011. This is a new, much more sophisticated blood ivory war, with high stakes.


Kin Cheung photo


Very large shipments, involving the ivory of hundreds of elephants, are regularly encountered. Recently, authorities in Malaysia made one of the largest ivory seizures ever – six tons in a single shipment, representing the ivory of about 600 elephants, equivalent to one-quarter of the known elephant population of Uganda.


Current poaching rates in Eastern Africa have exceeded natural population growth rates. ( Most countries in Africa can claim fewer than 1000 elephants, so this demand will quickly destroy some countries populations of elephants altogether. )


Shouldn’t We Focus our Efforts on East Africa?

We know that most of the illicit ivory trafficked from Africa passes through the ports of Kenya and Tanzania (and more recently the port at Zanzibar as well) headed to Thailand and China, the two largest importers of ivory.


Global breakdown of ivory confiscated in very large seizures (>800 kg) by country or region of export, 2009-2011

Central Africa 2%

Uganda 3%

West Africa 4%

Southern Africa 10%

Unknown 17%

Kenya 27%

Tanzania 37%

(Source: Elephant Trade Information System)


Both as source and transit areas, Kenya and Tanzania are key players. Since ivory comes from many places and is distributed to buyers across Asia, these ports represent vital chokepoints in the flow of blood ivory.


Is the African Elephant Endangered? 

The African elephant is not currently listed as “endangered” but the severity of this current poaching crisis ( one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes) may force our largest living land mammal and one of the most intelligent, emotional, and sensitive of all beings to extinction within our life-time. 

Focusing our efforts in East Africa, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as putting a new ‘Ban on Ivory’ into effect, are critical components if we are going to (once again) save the African Elephant.


*  The United Nations report  (released this month):

Transnational Organized Crime in Eastern Africa: A Threat Assessment 


How you can help:

-Support the best organizations in East Africa

-Talk to Asian people about your concern for the African Elephant and make sure they understand where ivory comes from. Many of them claim not to know.

-Spread this post through all your social networks (buttons to left of this post for easy sharing).

-Sign any and all petitions that come to your attention supporting a Ban on Ivory.

-Join our tribe here at Africa Inside and connect to others who share your passion.

-Comment below so others can learn from you and hear what you think and what you are doing to save Africa’s Elephants


Want More on African Ellies?

Understanding the Crisis

Three Ways to Help Elephants


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3 Replies to “Can We Save the African Elephant This Time?”

  1. Great post, Lori (as usual!) I will be participating in the March digitally since I won’t be able to make it to Cape Town on the 4th.
    Thanks for making me aware of this. I will prepare a blog post and see if I can get some of my followers to participate as well.

  2. EXCELLENT articles—just hope people who are willing to “do” something will read & take action–the problem is getting people to act !!!

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