Wildlife crime is now the most urgent threat to three of the planet’s most charismatic species: rhinos, tigers and elephants. ©Dave Luck

On Monday, May 6, 2013, 17 heavily armed poachers entered Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic. They then proceeded to a large clearing known as Dzanga Bai, or “village of elephants,” where between 50 and 200 of the animals congregate daily to drink in the mineral salts found in the sands. The poachers easily massacred at least 26 elephants, according to World Wildlife Fund. The animals were killed for their ivory.

Reports from several nature conservation groups indicate that ivory is the latest economic resource for terrorist groups in Africa, fueling conflicts across the continent. For example, it has been documented that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebels exchange tusks for weapons, and the government army kills elephants to raise needed monies.

Despite bans, antipoaching patrols and the destruction of ivory taken in seizures, elephants continue to be used as funding for human wars. Some hope that President Obama will discuss poaching with officials on his tour to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania later this month. But given the lack of success so far, will any measure yet devised keep the world’s largest land animal from going extinct at the hands of poachers?

The Dzanga-Ndoki National Park elephants were killed in their “village,” where they often congregate to drink. ©Richard Field

Ivory for sale . . .

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that the global, illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007. Raw ivory now brings in more than $1,300 per pound, due to a sharp rise in demand from Asia.

In 2011, the seizure of large shipments of ivory hit an all-time high, indicating an increasingly active, profitable and well-organized illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. According to the CITES global organization Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed that year. The Wildlife Conservation Society puts that figure even higher, saying that some 25,000 African elephants are killed every year—this despite a ban on ivory poaching that was instituted in Africa in 1989.

And the poaching is spreading. Once a mostly central African problem, previously secure populations in eastern and southern Africa are now under threat. The Tanzania Elephant Protection Society estimates that about 30 elephants are killed every day and 850 elephants are shot every month. But taking into account the big geographical size of Tanzania and poor access to wildlife areas, there is no telling the actual number of elephants being killed daily there.

According to World Wildlife Fund, elephants are a keystone species that help maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystems they inhabit. They make pathways in dense, forested areas that allow passage for other animals. And, an elephant footprint can enable a microecosystem that, when filled with water, can provide a home for tadpoles and other organisms. ©Mark Hickey

In northern Uganda, members of the Lords Resistance Army are hunting down elephants and using their tusks to buy weapons and support their terrorist activities. In Somalia, the militant group Al-Shabaab is reported to have killed elephants in Kenya parks. Reports say Kenya loses about two elephants every week to poaching, with some of the proceeds used to finance Al-Shabaab and other criminal organizations.

Even the small east African nation of Burundi is said to be getting into the fray. This tiny and war-torn country is believed to have only one elephant. However, Burundi has now become notorious as a base for elephant and rhino poachers and ivory smugglers who kill animals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s said that when you visit various towns and villages in Burundi, you’ll find elephant tusks being sold in open markets, alongside the carrots and other produce.

. . . But antipoaching not up for discussion

The total continental population estimate for African elephants is between 420,000 and 650,000, with just three countries accounting for well over half of these elephants: Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The good news is that the lower rates of poaching in these countries—where the majority of the elephant population exists—is keeping the total African elephant population stable. But for many of the range states in central and western Africa, the extent of the killings now far exceeds the natural population growth rates, forcing these elephants into widespread decline and putting them at risk of extinction.

Will any of our antipoaching measures help save African elephants from extinction? ©Richard Field

Many are hoping that President Obama will address Africa’s antipoaching challenges with political leaders when he visits later this month. However, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Alfonso Lenhardt has said that the president will focus discussions on investments, economic growth, strengthening of democratic institutions and nurturing young leadership. Antipoaching measures are not on the agenda.

But terrorism on any village should rate a space on any docket of international talks. Even if it is on an elephant village.

If current elephant antipoaching measures are failing to work, do you think that having President Obama put the issue on his discussion-topic list during his trip to Africa will have any impact? What measures do you think would?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


Visit WWF’s wildlife crime prevention page if you’d like to help in the effort to stop elephant poaching.

Responsible tourism also helps in preventing wildlife poaching because it puts a higher value on wildlife that is kept alive rather than poached. Check out our African safari tours to countries such as Botswana, South Africa and Tanzania for more information on our responsible African safaris.