After assessing the continental elephant herd and population declines over several decades due to poaching for ivory, loss of habitat, and other threats, the IUCN has uplisted the African Savanna Elephant to ‘Endangered’ status and African Forest Elephant to ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Experts from African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) today issued a statement agreeing with the IUCN findings, specifically regarding the change in status of the African Forest Elephant, which AWF had seen coming.
AWF Vice President of Species Conservation & Science Philip Muruthi, Ph.D., said: “AWF is fighting to conserve elephants in situ and reducing trafficking and the demand for ivory in Asia and across the world, educating consumers about the real cost of ivory products and working with governments to close ivory markets. We support the IUCN decision at this time to update the African Forest Elephant to critically endangered and the savannah elephant to endangered, and believe it tracks with criteria in accordance with their red-listing process. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is not to be confused with CITES processes where the African elephant is already split-listed.”
AWF, however, also acknowledges that certain elephant populations across the continent are growing as a result of concerted conservation efforts in the past decade.
“We have seen sub-populations in Southern and Eastern Africa stabilize and grow since the poaching crisis that peaked in 2011. Concerted efforts to fight illegal wildlife trade within the continent, and the actions of some consumer countries in Asia to ban ivory trade, means that some elephant populations in Africa are currently thriving. Even as we recognize the crisis, we must appreciate the progress we have made,” said Dr. Muruthi.
The latest IUCN Red List includes 134,425 species, 37,480 of which are threatened with extinction. Currently, 8,188 species are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ and 14,106 as ‘Endangered.’ Never before has the African Forest Elephant been red-listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN standards.
The persistent demand for elephant ivory because of its beauty and artistic uses has dramatically reduced the elephant population across the African continent, speeding the loss of a keystone species that plays a critical role in maintaining the biodiversity of natural ecosystems. The African Forest Elephant population has declined by more than 86 percent over the past three decades, while the African Savanna Elephant population has decreased by roughly 60 percent since 1970.
The multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory in 1989, but not all countries have adhered to the Convention, and there have been peaks and valleys for ivory sales over the past three decades. Ivory stockpile transactions from African to Asian countries in 2008 are estimated to have killed more than 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012 because flooding the market increased the opportunity for poachers to mask the sale of illegal ivory.
Many Asian and Southeast Asian countries still contribute to the illegal ivory trade. Prior to the global pandemic, an estimated 20,000 African elephants were still being killed each year for their ivory. And the trade routes for African elephant ivory are still largely flowing to dealers in Asia.
In recent years, China has increased its efforts to stop the ivory trade. On May 26, 2020, CITES issued a statement announcing that China had continued measures to ban the import of elephant tusks and their products. This sets an example for other countries in the region to follow, and these efforts have had an undeniable and significant impact on the potential penetration of legal ivory sales into Central Asia.
Since AWF launched campaigns to stop elephant poaching, public awareness around the illegal ivory trade has increased, and tolerance for ivory products is becoming more of a taboo.