It has long been known that China’s voracious appetite for ivory is helping drive a spike in the poaching of African elephants. But until now, it wasn’t clear just how bad the problem has become. According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, elephants are being killed at a faster rate than the animals can reproduce, and their widespread killing is tearing apart elephant societies.
Researchers led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University found that elephant killings correlated with the market price of ivory. In 2011, when ivory prices peaked, some 40,000 elephants were killed. Wittemyer’s research provides the most comprehensive examination to date of the rate of elephant poaching. Because of poaching’s illicit nature, researchers have struggled to compile good data on its full scope. According to his research, between 2010 and 2012, some 6.8 percent of the global elephant population was killed. That amounts to an average of 33,630 elephants per year.
The slaughter of male elephants has had profound consequences for elephant societies. The killing of males in their breeding years poses a threat to the species’s future longevity. The researchers add that the widespread killing of males has resulted in “collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans.”
This phenomenon can be largely ascribed to China’s nearly insatiable demand for ivory. Rising incomes have helped buoy demand for a product seen as a status marker. A huge amount of the ivory seized around the world was destined for China and Hong Kong, and though it is an imperfect measure, it indicates the degree to which the underground ivory market remains concentrated in China. Wittemyer and his researchers illustrate this phenomenon in a striking pair of graphics:
The spike in elephant mortality rates mirrors the rate at which elephants are illegally killed, but as Wittemyer and his colleagues note, the data also provides something of a puzzle: The rate of poaching slowed after their 2011 peak, though the price of ivory stayed high. It’s not entirely clear why. China has been taking measures to restrict the sale of ivory, but it is unclear the degree to which that has helped stem demand.
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Passport |
Cara Parks is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to that she was the World editor at the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and has written for The New Republic, Interview, Radar, and Publishers Weekly, among others.| Passport |