Chinese complicit in ivory poaching and elephant deaths. So are Americans.

For the first time more elephants are dying than being born each year due to poaching, with elephant herd leaders being a special target. China may be the No. 1 ivory market, but America is No. 2.

Toby Melville/Reuters
A young elephant walks with adult elephants on a road near Pretoria, in South Africa, August 8, 2014.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

The BBC reported on August 18 that in the past four years, approximately 35,000 elephants annually have been poached for their ivory. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a tipping point has been reached in elephant populations: more elephants are dying than being born. The population is in decline due to the international demand for ivory.

The BBC article states that the main targets of poachers are the large bulls, mature females, and matriarchs in their prime. These are the creatures bearing the longest, most impressive tusks. This means that poachers are killing the leaders of herds and picking off the healthiest breeding elephants.

Not only is this poaching reducing the number of living elephants, it is decreasing the capacity of the remaining elephants to reproduce. Elephants have long memories and care and nurture their young for years. The matriarchs pass their knowledge of watering holes, salt licks, migration paths, and more on to the younger generations.

In elephant herds, the eradication of the leadership destroys the accumulated wisdom and “shred[s] the [social] fabric” of that herd, decreasing its capacity to keep the remaining elephants alive, the report notes. 

The US is home to the world’s second largest ivory market, following China. A significant portion of the worked or carved ivory brought into the US also comes from China, and feeds its own demand.

Eliminating the demand for ivory and horn is essential to saving Africa’s wildlife, and a significant responsibility lies on Americans of all kinds to decrease it. Those who follow conservation issues -- or at least receive the relevant informative emails -- will have noticed an increase in the number of campaigns and petitions to ban ivory in the US. They will also have seen announcements of successes and failures in that endeavor.

As the threat to the world’s largest land animals continues, it remains to be seen how effective these measures will be on reducing the domestic American market for ivory.

Ms. Mellgard is a researcher at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London, and former research associate for the CFR Africa program.

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