Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Ivory Crisis


A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE: Will Travers OBE, Born Free Foundation.

On 13th February 2014, the UK Government will host a High Level Meeting on the Illegal Wildlife Trade to which 50 Heads of State have been invited. 

There will be a number of endangered species on the agenda including tigers and rhino but one more is sure to capture the attention of the meeting and the wider world – the elephant. And particularly the African elephant which is currently being slaughtered in its tens of thousands each year to feed the rapacious and brutal ivory trade (

In the following article I try to summarise the current state of the crisis how we got here, what measures are being discussed and what is actually being done to protect elephants and eradicate demand.

I hope this will give you the information you need to determine whether what comes out of the 13th February meeting is worthwhile and whether it is on the scale needed to turn the situation around.

Please feel free to share this summary as widely as you can!

Best wishes and fingers crossed

Will Travers OBE, Born Free Foundation.

Printable pdf available here

P.S. Please contact your MP and ask them to sign EDM 773 and support UK funding of elephant protection



1979 - 1,300,000 wild African elephants 

1989 - 600,000 wild African elephants 

2013 - <400,000 wild African elephants

Africa's elephants are found in 38 African Elephant Range States (AERS)

Approximately 70% or more of Africa's elephants are concentrated in just 7 countries - Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

Some range States (RS) now count their elephants in the low hundreds or even tens. The Director of Wildlife in the Central African Republic told me that in the 1970s his country had 70,000 elephants. Today he estimates that number to be below 1,000.


  • Poaching for ivory
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Human/elephant conflict

 Of these, the most pressing and urgent threat is poaching.

Ivory poaching accounted for circa 25,000-30,000 elephants in 2011. The figures for 2012 are disputed but at least 22,000 were killed, with my estimate being closer to 40,000. The figures for 2013 are not yet assessed but, based on the amount of ivory seized, could be as high as 50,000.

The natural annual rate of net recruitment for elephants is between 4-5%. So, based on 400,000 elephants, the net growth might be expected to be 20,000. Losses of 40,000 would represent a net annual loss of 5%, or 20,000 elephants. 

On average, it is estimated that an elephant is poached every 15 minutes.


The capacity of the various AERS varies greatly. For example, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has an annual budget of circa $50m. Kenya has about 35,000 elephants. Some West African range States have annual wildlife department budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars.


International (not national) wildlife trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). This Convention has 179 Parties (countries that have signed up). Briefly, species listed on CITES are either placed in Appendix II which regulates but permits international commercial trade (so, many tree, fish and other species), or Appendix I which prohibits international commercial trade (tigers, Asian elephants, etc.). The African elephant was universally placed on Appendix 1 in 1989 in response to the catastrophic decline in wild elephant numbers (>50%) between 1979 and 1989. 

The result of this listing, supported by the UK Government of the day and more than 66% of the Parties to CITES, was a collapse in the price of illegal ivory and the closure of all significant markets (Europe, USA, Far East).

Elephant populations in many range States stabilised and, in some, started to recover. For example, Kenya's elephant population fell from more than 100,000 in 1979 to about 16,000 in 1989. It has since doubled but is, once more coming under renewed poaching pressure.

However, in 1997 proponents of the ivory trade agitated for some countries, those regarded as having robust elephant populations, to have their elephant populations down-listed to Appendix II, permitting commercial trade and, at the same time, called for a so-called 'one-off' sale to be approved at the 10th Conference of the CITES Parties, held in Harare. Three of them prevailed (Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe) and circa 50 tonnes was subsequently sold to Japan - the only CITES-approved ivory trading nation - in 1999.

The sale raised a disappointing amount of money for the supply countries (about $5m) and little discernible impact was registered at the time in terms of increased elephant poaching.

South Africa’s elephant population was downlisted from Appendix I to Appendix II at CoP11 (Nairobi, 2000)

Emboldened, under an agreement reached in The Hague in 2007, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were authorised to make a single sale of government-owned ivory. The following quantities of raw ivory were sold in auctions that took place in October and November 2008 : Botswana: 43,153 kg, Namibia: 7,226kg, South Africa: 47,356 kg, and Zimbabwe: 3,700 kg.

This further one-off sale, this time to Japan and, critically, China, raised $15,482,810 (an average of $152.63 a kilo), a disappointing total, according to the sellers. 

Many experts, including Born Free, argued strenuously against the approval of China as an ivory-trading nation and against the sale. We did not succeed. It was explained to us by the then UK Minister that such a sale would go some way to 'satisfy demand' and reduce poaching. That rationale spectacularly failed.

Almost immediately, poaching levels began to relentlessly escalate; the volume of illegal ivory shipments soared and the price of ivory has rocketed from the $152 a kilo achieved in the 2008 legal sale to $2,000 a kilo or more today on the blackmarket.

The 2008 legal sale, far from satisfying demand, has stimulated demand from hundreds of millions of newly middle-class Chinese, those with disposable income to spend on familiar goods such as cars, refrigerators, air conditioning ... and, disastrously, ivory.

The Chinese government has recently confirmed its current policy of 'drip-feeding' ivory from its legal stocks into the domestic market at the rate of 5,000 kilos per annum. This is perpetuating the legitimacy of ivory in domestic markets and, in my view, making matters worse.

It is important to recognise that current levels of intercepted illegal ivory represent the tip of the iceberg. US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) data suggests that only circa 15% of illegal goods are successfully intercepted. Therefore the 45,000 kilos of ivory seized in 2013 (based on consignments weighing more than 500 kg) are likely to represent nearer 300,000 kilos in actual trade. However, 300,000 kilos is likely to be a serious under-estimate as this figure does not take into account consignments under 500 kg.

Fourteen of the largest ivory seizures between January and November 2013:

Date/Location Weight seized
14th January; Mombasa port, Kenya: 3,828kg (638 pieces/tusks)
23rd January; Singapore: 1,800kg (1099 pieces)
23rd May; Malawian border & Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 1,126-1,128 tusks
April 2012 – 20th June 2013; Hong Kong, China: 2,000kg
8th July; Mombasa port, Kenya: 3,287kg (382 tusks & 62 pieces)
18th July; Hong Kong port, China: 2,183kg (1,148 pieces)
6th August; Hong Kong port, China: 2,230kg (1,120 tusks/pieces)
September/October 2013; Mombasa port, Kenya: 2,000kg (1,642 pieces)
4th October; Mombasa port, Kenya: 1,950kg (686 pieces)
3rd October; Hai Phong, Vietnam: 2,100kg (nearly 1,200 pieces)
18th-19th October; Bweyogerere, Uganda: 1,903kg (832 pieces)
21st October; Hai Phong, Vietnam: 2,400kg
2nd November; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: 1,900kg (706 tusks & pieces)
13th November; Zanzibar, Tanzania 2,915kg (1,023 pieces)

Total for above seizures: 30,496kg / 30.5 tonnes + 1,126 tusks

The accepted formula for converting ivory weight into dead elephants is:

One tusk weighs 3.65kg and each elephant carries, on average, 1.8 tusks. Thus 300,000kg represents in the order of 45,000 elephants and many more thousands of kilos of ivory have been recovered in smaller seizures. This leads me to the conclusion that in 2013 alone, Africa may have lost 50,000 elephants to poaching.

Official CITES data also confirms that the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants (the percentage of carcasses found that are as a result of illegal killing as opposed to natural mortality,) known as PIKE, has exceeded 50% in all four African regions (East, Central, West and South) for the first time since records began. In other words, more than 50% of the dead elephants being counted by the authorities are illegally killed animals.


I have attended and participated in every CITES meeting (held every 2-3 years) since 1989 (the last Conference of the Parties, Bangkok 2013, was my 10th).

Over nearly 25 years I have witnessed the polarised debates relating to the merits or not of a legal ivory trade played out time and time again. The focus on ivory trade rather than a focus on elephant conservation has created a lack of unity which has prevented Africa from finding common cause and common solutions to the crisis.

That is, potentially, no longer the case.

In 2007 the African Elephant Range States embarked on a process to create an African Elephant Action Plan (AEAP), to set out a series of ranked and costed priorities aimed at securing Africa's elephants. Crucially this plan did not set out to try to address whether or not ivory should be traded – it was to focus on conservation measures as the top priority. For details click on the African Elephant Action Plan link on the home page of  

In 2010 the AEAP was approved by the CITES Parties attending the 15th CoP in Doha. 

In 2011, CITES approved the creation of the African Elephant Fund (AEF), where funds dedicated to the AEAP were to be deposited, and the African Elephant Fund Steering Committee (AEFSC), the official body charged with approving the projects  to be supported and administering the funds raised to support the AEAP. 

The AEF Steering Committee is made up of two range State representatives from all four African elephant regions (E,W,C and S), together with three donor representatives (currently Germany, France and the Netherlands), supported by UNEP and the CITES Secretariat.

However, lamentably, so far, circa just US$1 million has been contributed to the AEF against a three year plan and a US$97m budget.

Clearly a much greater response to the crisis is needed if the AEAP is to succeed in addressing its first 3 prioritised Objectives which are; 

  1. Improved elephant protection through enhanced wildlife law-enforcement in the field.
  2. Improved environmental security for key elephant habitats.
  3. Reduced human/elephant conflict and enhanced livelihoods for rural communities.


In the last few months there have been a number of initiatives to help try and address the current poaching crisis and certain funds have now been pledged, although how they will be applied is unclear as they have not, as far as I am aware, been directed to the AEAP.

These include:

$10 million identified under the US Presidential Executive Order in late summer 2013 (this money has been allocated to just 3 specific African elephant range States)

$80 million pledged at the event hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September 2013 (it is unclear whether this is new money and there is some speculation that much of it may be a recycling of existing commitments)

€25 million pledged by the Government of France (€14 million of which is in the form of debt forgiveness)

€9 million pledged by the Government of the Netherlands (no specificity at this time as to where this will be directed)

€12 million pledged by the EU for enhanced wildlife law-enforcement.

$7 million pledged by Paul Allen for surveying African savannah elephant populations across the continent.

Other relevant and recent news includes:

  • A meeting, hosted by the Government of Botswana and held under the auspices of the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN, has come forward with a number of Urgent Measures that broadly reflect the prioritised Objectives of the AEAP.
  • The Chinese Government destroyed 6.1 tonnes of confiscated ivory and ‘other wildlife products’ on the 6th January 2014, although the authorities have stayed silent so far on whether they will move to destroy their legal stocks, close their internal ivory markets and effectively ban all trade.
  • A new survey of elephant numbers in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, regarded by many as one of Africa’s great elephant strongholds, has revealed that numbers have fallen from an estimated 70,000 in 2005 to just 13,000 today – a possible decline of over 80% in less than 10 years.
  • The UK has announced (23/12/2013) that it will pledge £10 million towards elephant conservation. In particular towards stopping demand, improving enforcement and helping communities develop sustainable economic activities.

In themselves, these are important steps, quite possibly prompted by the now universally accepted link between organised illegal wildlife trade and the involvement of organised crime/terrorist activities that have a local, national, regional and international de-stabilising impact. However, unless they are applied in concert and deliver the fundamental requirements of the AEAP, then the best and perhaps last hope for Africa’s elephants – a plan developed by Africa, for Africa and applied by Africa and accountable to Africa, will have been missed.

Work in consumer countries is essential. Ivory buyers must be provided with the facts. Law-enforcement agencies (Customs, police) must be better-resourced. Above all, politicians must take policy-decisions to end domestic sales and redeploy those involved in ivory carving (as India did over 25 years ago). Only the clearest, unambiguous message will do. Currently there is some ivory that is legal and some that it not and, frankly, who knows how to tell the difference (or, possibly, who cares). All ivory, new, old, legal, illegal, elephant, hippo, mammoth (which only an expert can tell apart) must be off the menu.

However, as far as the protection of living elephants in their natural habitats is concerned, the High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade (to be take place in London on 13th February  2014) offers the United Kingdom a unique opportunity. It is the perfect platform for the British Government to take a global leadership role in relation to the future survival of elephants, while at the same time improving the life prospects for people living in some of the most remote and vulnerable local communities, and tackling insecurity issues coordinated by organisations that use the proceeds of wildlife crime (ivory trade) to further their despicable ends.

In order to make a meaningful difference, I believe the UK’s recent pledge of £10 million must be the first of 10 annual pledges of a similar amount, totalling £100 million ($160 million) over 10 years, applied through the AEAP to ensure that African Elephant Range States have the tools to do what they know must be done. I am confident that were the UK to make such a significant and ground-breaking commitment, numerous other countries would be given the confidence they need to step up and that support would also be forthcoming from the private sector and the NGO Community (Born Free and Save The Elephants have pledged over $100,000 towards elephant conservation in Babile, Ethiopia, and BFF has deployed over $50,000 to elephant protection in Park W, Burkina Faso.)

Anything less than immediate, determined and effective action will simply condemn many of Africa’s elephant to a savage death for nothing more than an item of personal adornment or decoration. 

I predict that without action as many as half of Africa’s elephant range States will lose their elephants entirely within the next 10 years and the diminished, surviving herds will be confined to heavily fortified protected areas in a handful of countries.  

For many, E will no longer be for Elephant: E will be for Extinct. 

It does not have to be this way! Together we can turn the African Elephant Action Plan (and a secure future for elephants) from a dream into a reality. But the next few weeks will be critical.

Key resources:         

Born Free Foundation
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