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A Poaching Epidemic: 100,000 African Elephants Were Killed In Just Three Years

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Between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed roughly 100,000 African elephants, a surge associated with an increase in black-market prices of ivory, according to a recent study by an international team of conservationists.

The elephants killed include the well-known, such as Satao and Mountain Bull, and thousands of unnamed pachyderms. "Witnessing the killing of known elephants, some that we have followed since they were born, has been terrible," says study author and Colorado State University professor George Wittemyer, in a statement. "Our data has become the most sensitive barometer of change during this poaching epidemic. We needed to quantify the scale of killing and figure out how to derive rigorous interpretation of poaching rates."

Although the illegal harvest of ivory has plagued elephants for decades, this study is the first to estimate the elephant death toll across Africa in recent years. The researchers monitored the wild elephant population in Samburu, Kenya - where scientists have recorded each elephant birth and death for 16 years - relying on these data and other studies to estimate poaching's overall impact.

"The results of these simulations are not surprising. They are very similar to the annual figure of 35,000 that was estimated by conservationists and cited by US Fish and Wildlife Service for the number killed in 2012," says Keith Lindsay, a biologist at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants who was not involved in this research, in an email to The Dodo. "This figure was disputed by pro-trade apologists, it should be noted, but it is now supported by the current study."

Ten years ago, poaching caused 25 percent of all elephant deaths; since then, poachers are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of elephant deaths. A significant portion of the demand for ivory is fueled by the Chinese black market, though China is attempting to crack down on the illegal trade, the BBC reports.

Certain local elephant populations - in Botswana, for example - are increasing, points out study co-author Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants. But the overall trend paints a grim picture: "History has taught us that numbers alone are no defense against attrition from the ivory trade, and this new work confirms that elephant numbers are decreasing in East, Central and Southern Africa."

History, as Elizabeth Kolbert writes for the New Yorker, is in danger of repeating itself again. As the mammoth and mastodon went, so might go the elephant, unless the desire to hunt these great beasts can be stopped.

"Accelerated efforts to reduce or eliminate demand in Asia, along with serious international cooperation to act on the criminal networks stretching from Asia to Africa," Lindsay says, "are the only certain steps that will protect elephants from the trade."

This post has been updated to reflect comments from Keith Lindsay.