African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory at a rate unprecedented since an international convention banning ivory trade took effect in 1989, a University of Washington biologist says.
The problem is so serious that the giant creatures might be on the path to extinction unless western nations reinstate strong enforcement efforts that all but halted black-market ivory trade in the four years immediately after the ban was enacted, said Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology. He is the lead author of a paper detailing the problem published the week of Feb. 26 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he argues the continued loss of elephants will have serious consequences.
"Elephants are majestic animals and are not trivial to the ecosystem. They are a keystone species and taking them out significantly alters the habitat," he said. "It has ripple effects on lots of different species."
For the year ending in August 2006, authorities seized more than 23,400 kilograms, or nearly 24 tons, of contraband ivory, Wasser said. But the paper notes it is commonly assumed that customs agents typically detect only about 10 percent of contraband, so the actual amount of poached ivory probably is closer to 234,000 kilograms. That means more than 23,000 elephants, or about 5 percent of Africa's total population, likely were killed for that amount of ivory.
China's burgeoning economy is a major force driving the black-market ivory trade, escalating prices and attracting organized crime, Wasser said. In 1989 a kilogram of high-quality ivory sold for $100 on the black market. That rose to $200 in 2004 but by last year had ballooned to $750 per kilogram.
"If it really is organized crime that's driving this, then the only hope we have of stopping it is to stop the ivory at the source, to not let it into the international market. Because once it's in the
Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington