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Tusks And All, Elephants Are Worth More Alive Than Dead

A living elephant is worth a staggering 76 times more alive than dead for its tusks according to a landmark report

Crime may pay more than conservation, but between January and August 2014, approximately 17.8 tonnes (about 4,000 pounds) of ivory was seized worldwide. This figure represents about 1,940 elephants killed for their tusks. The four countries accounting for the most seizures are Kenya, Gabon, Vietnam and China, all of which are on CITES watch list. CITES singled out these countries for not doing enough to tackle the illegal ivory trade. At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, we launched the iworry campaign which produced these findings, detailed fully in our report, Dead or Alive: valuing an elephant.

Over its lifetime, an elephant contributes over $1.6 million to travel companies, airlines and local economies thanks to tourists willing to pay generously for a chance to see and photograph the world's largest land mammal. By comparison, dead an elephant is worth $21,000 (raw ivory estimate) to fund criminal groups, corrupt officials and even terrorist groups.

Worryingly, the report notes that law enforcement in developed countries typically seize only 10 percent of general goods contraband such as ivory. This suggests that up to 178 tonnes (about 400,000 pounds) of ivory could have been illegally trafficked this year, representing 19,400 elephants killed.

A key driver of elephant poaching across Africa is ongoing demand from China and Far Eastern countries. Last year, an estimated 50 tonnes (slightly more than 110,000 pounds) of ivory was seized worldwide and poaching has now reached critical levels.

For many, finding the economic value of an elephant might be controversial, but as iworry campaign director Rob Brandford puts it, "These findings make it clearer than ever that we must recognize the value of our wildlife and environmental heritage in order to pass policies that safeguard against their destruction. Referring to wild animals as economic commodities has created controversy in the past but where policy is determined by the value of an object, its a powerful argument to convince policy makers."

The current population of elephants in Africa is unknown, but estimates place the figure at between 300,000 and 400,000. African elephants are listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List. As a species, elephants do not reach sexual maturity until at least 11 years old, can live until 70 on average and reproduce slowly meaning at the current rate of slaughter, they might be wiped out within our lifetime. They are extremely intelligent, known to mourn for dead relatives and are even able to distinguish a human's age and even ethnicity by listening to a voice.

Read the full report here. Find out more about the iworry campaign here.