Elephant FAQs


What is the latest on the elephant poaching crisis?
How do poachers kill elephants?
Where is the poaching crisis most severe?
Elephant Math: How much ivory is there in a pair of elephant tusks?
What is “Shotgun Evolution”?
What’s the difference between the ivory from Forest elephants and and that of Savannah elephants?
How many African elephants are left in the wild?
Do elephants wander about much or do they stay put?
Where are the African elephants?
Why not just cut off all the elephants tusks to stop the poachers?
What about staining tusks to stop poaching?

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What is the latest on the elephant poaching crisis, or rather, as of October 2015?

In Oct 2015, in Zimbabwe “some of the more than 60 elephants poisoned in the past month might have been poisoned by disgrunted and cash-strapped rangers.”

2004 to 2013, no elephants were poached in Kruger National Park in South Africa. 2 were poached in 2014. 12 in Sep and Oct 2015.

In late March 2015, it was reported by MIKE that the level of African elephant poaching in 2014 was “virtually” the same as in 2013.

homemade bullets

homemade 12 gauge shells

How do poachers kill elephants?

They often use high caliber (.375 or .458) hunting or assault rifles, 12 gauge shotguns and machine guns. Sometimes using homemade bullets. The guns are usually borrowed or rented from a middleman “sponsoring” the poaching.

You kill an elephant with a “brain” shot followed by an insurance shot or two if you use a high caliber rifle. You might need a dozen or more insurance shots** if you have to use an AK-47.

There are two schools of thought about which of the herd to shoot first.

Some poachers believe, “Your first target should be the matriarch,** ‘which anchors and confuses the rest of the group, [so they can be] quickly dispatched, as they mill around.’” Other poachers prefer to “shoot the baby first.” “Elephants are very sociable, they look after each other. If the baby is shot the adults will come to try and help. That way the poachers can get the whole group.”

Poachers may shoot from the ground or elephant viewing platforms or from airplanes, helicopters and trucks. Poachers also kill with wire snares as well as poisoned arrows and spikes. The poisoned spikes (below) are driven through a length of wood and then laid down upright in an area through which the poachers cause the elephants to stampede.  “[L]acing waterholes and salt licks with cyanide” is another strategy.

spiked boardsExcept for the guns and arrows, these techniques are as likely to kill an elephant without tusks as one with them. Cyanide poisoning, of course, kills any animals using the watering holes and salt licks. It also may kill the animals who eat the poisoned animals.
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Where is the poaching crisis most severe?

As of March 2015, the poaching “remains highest in Central and West Africa.” Between 2002 and 2013, there has been a “65 percent decline in Africa’s forest elephant population,” which is centered near the equator in the Congo Basin which spreads across Gabon, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (inside the blue oval on the map below.)

In eastern Africa, Tanzania lost 60% of its 110,000 elephants in just 5 years through 2014.
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Elephant math: How much ivory is there in a pair of tusks?

Between 6.5 and 7 kilograms, according to TRAFFIC’s analysis of 7,800 ivory seizure records from 1989 to 2002. (derivation below)

10 kgs is the popular rule of thumb used for fundraising, awareness campaigns and popular press accounts of the crisis. I haven’t found a derivation of it on the internet, but it’s easy to remember and scales up well. 100 elephants per tonne of ivory (1,000 kgs).

Coupled with the better known rule of thumb that 100 elephants are killed each day, we have a complete snapshot of the elephant poaching crisis. 36,500 elephants are poached every year. 365 tonnes of raw ivory are harvested.

As good as these round 100s are for arresting the public’s attention, I wonder if their very concreteness makes it hard to communicate the easing or worsening of the crisis much less convey something of its complexity.

Finally, I found 50 kgs quoted by one hunting trip facilitator as the average weight of a trophy (2 tusks) for Southern Africa in 2011.

The derivation of the 6.5 to 7 kgs estimate:  the average tusk weighs @ 3.65 kgs. Each elephant has – on average – 1.88 tusks (you know like parents have 1.5 children). 3.65 kgs x 1.88 tusks = 6.9 kgs/elephant
see Hunter, N., Martin E., and Milliken T. 2004. Determining the number of elephants required to supply current unregulated ivory markets in Africa and Asia. Pachyderm 36:116–128

What is “Shotgun Evolution”?

This is a change in some attribute of a species that appears evolutionary, but is, in fact, caused by the gun hunters’ preference for one form of that attribute. This is called selective sighting. Elephants’ tusks appear to be smaller on average than they were 100 years ago. This might be because a poacher or hunter with a “high velocity rifle” will go for the large tusk bearing elephants first. If poaching and hunting is intense enough the big tusker share of the herd gene pool will inexorably shrink.

Before the use of the high powered shotgun, poachers and hunters settled for the weaker members of the herd who generally had smaller tusks. In a time when poachers relied on spears, traps, tendon slashing and snares large tusked elephants were harder to kill.

Similarly, in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, 30 years of culling among smaller tusked elephants first seems to have burnished the Park’s reputation for “tuskers.” (The culling stopped in the mid-1990s.)

see E. J. Raubenheimer Development of the tush and tusklessness in the African elephant** (Loxodonta africana), Koedoe 43/2, 2000, p.63
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What’s the difference between the ivory from Forest elephants and that of Savannah elephants?

The forest elephant ivory has a finer grain than the savannah elephant. It’s “harder and differs in color from savannah ivory, making it the preferred material by artisans. Forest ivory is known as hot or pink ivory.” The tannins or mineral salts in the forest mud apparently darken the tusks. The harder ivory is “particularly prized in Japan, where it is used in the manufacture of name stamps, or hanko, and the bachi, a traditional drumstick or plectrum.”

Chris JohnsNGS Forest Ele emptyThe forest elephant population has fallen more sharply than the savannah over the short term (2002 – 2013) and over the last 140 years. Perhaps, this is because of the ivory carver’s preference for the former’s tusks. On the other hand, how different can the forest and savannah elephants’ tusks be? Only in 2003 did some taxonomists recognize the 2 elephants to be 2 distinct African elephant sub-species. IUCN has abstained on the question frantic that without “extensive research” we’ll start seeing every other hybrid elephant as a new sub-species.
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How many African elephants are left in the wild?

Best guess for early 2015 seems to be 450,000 to 550,000. Less than 100,000 of these are forest elephants, Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis. Perhaps, 350,000 to 450,000 are savanna elephants or Loxodonta Africana Africana. Both are being poached. In 2015, a new elephant census is due to be completed.

Chris JohnsNGS Forest EleOver 150,000 African elephants have likely been killed since poaching again became a crisis around 2007 (through 2014.) The worst year – so far – in this crisis has been 2011 when over 40,000 elephants may have been killed. Although recently elephant “numbers appear to be increasing in Namibia and South Africa,” the forest and savanna elephant populations across the continent have been declining absolutely for a few years now. Or, more vigorously put, “current offtake exceeds the intrinsic growth capacity of the species.”  In 2011, the “probable species reduction” was 3%. You get that 3% by taking the elephant natality or birth rate each year which is about equal to 5% of the population and subtracting it from the overall elephant death rate of over 8% of the population, a figure that has been sharply elevated by the increased poaching.

The metric used to measure poaching intensity in an area is called PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants). Take the number of illegally killed elephants carcasses found in an area in one year and divide it by the total number of elephant carcasses found. In 2011, PIKE was over .5  That is, more than half of the elephants that died in 2011 were probably killed by poachers. PIKE has declined since.
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Do elephants wander about much or do they stay put?

from Elephants Alive's 2014 Tracking Report for Eastern SA and southern Mozambique (click image to enlarge)

from Elephants Alive’s 2014 Tracking Report for Eastern SA and southern Mozambique (click image to enlarge)

Some do; some don’t. “Elephant home ranges vary from population to population and habitat to habitat.” Ranges can be as small as a couple dozen square kilometers to over 32,000 square kilometers in the case of Africa’s northernmost elephants that live in “the savage conditions of Mali’s desert.” Most elephants won’t stray more than a 10 kilometers from water.

A small range may not be the herd’s choice. A “pocketed herd” is a group of elephants unable to move about much because they are kept from migration corridors by factors outside their control such as buildings and highways and fenced croplands.

Above image is a map of the movements of one radio collared elephant in eastern South Africa through the wet and dry seasons of 2014. See Elephants Alive’s 2014 Tracking Report for a dozen or so more tracking maps of individual elephants.
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Where are the African elephants?

Elephants in the Dust p 19 ele rangeJust over half the elephants are in southern Africa. Maybe 30% are in the eastern part. 15% in central Africa. Less than 2% are found in the west. The biggest population is in northern Botswana, numbering 130,000 to 170,000 or nearly a third of all remaining elephants.

As of 2007, African elephants were thought to wander over about 3.3 million square kilometers (1.2 million sq miles) of sub-Saharan Africa. About 30% of this land has some kind of protected status (ie, national park or reserve.) I am not clear if elephants are appreciably safer in protected areas.

The forest elephants are found in the Congo Basin, “the tropical rainforest zone of west and central Africa, where relatively large blocks of dense forest remain.” About half of the forest elephants are in the forests of Gabon though some may be found across Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their range is marked in blue on the map above. They are difficult to track in the forest. Elephant researchers often must rely on dung counts to make population estimates.

The savanna elephants roam across eastern and southern Africa. Just 7 countries share most of the savanna elephants: Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Afr_Ele_pop_distr_IUCN_SSC_AEStatRept_2007The maps are from a report by CITES’ parent, the UN Environmental Program, called Elephants in the Dust,** published in 2013. The data, however, is from 2007, the beginning of the current crisis. The top map shows elephant range and population density. The other shows the population density more dramatically. The report speculates that the tiny 2007 elephant populations in Senegal, Somalia and Sudan (excluding the subsequently formed country of South Sudan) are probably gone now. Click the maps to see them larger.
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Why not just cut off all the elephants tusks to stop the poachers?

Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

Cut off what’s visible of a tusk and there’s still a third of the tusk’s length – and value – inside the elephant’s head – as the bloody portion of the tusk in the photograph illustrates. The tusk is strapped into a deep recess of the jaw to accommodate tremendous cantilevering force to which the elephant may subject the exposed portion of his or her tusks.

There is also the ethical and logistical issues for humans and the physiological and psychological effects on elephants who have their tusks cut off.

rows of tusk sections on end

Tusks are cut into sections for easier transport and quicker sale. Cross sections of the same tusk range from thin walled cylinder to virtually solid.

The hidden third might seem the most valuable since it’s the widest section, but, in fact, it is hollow as the photograph above of tusks cut into sections illustrates. As the diagram below notes this tapering hollow is called the pulp cavity. When the tusk is still attached to the elephant, it is holds soft tissue that is part of the process of growing and lengthening the living tusk – about 7″ a year.

tuskmorphologyYou get a sense of a tusk’s weight distribution by where the guys are holding the tusk as they carry it. The tusk’s exposed two thirds is almost solid ivory.

I would like to know if the price of ivory from the hollow section of tusk is less than the solid sections. You could still cover piano keys with it but you couldn’t carve much more than relief on it.

Still, the idea of chopping off tusks is a non-starter.

The story on the National Geographic photograph:  The elephant was indeed poached, but these aren’t the poachers. Kenyan Wildlife Service got there before the poachers could remove the tusks from the elephants and get away. The men in the photograph are KWS rangers on plainclothes duty. They  removed the tusks and destroyed them.
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What about staining tusks to stop poaching?

I’ve given that a lot of thought. . .

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** recommended source

photograph of 12-gauge shotgun with home-made bullets for elephants copyright WWF, I found it on p 50 of an IUCN summary report “Elephant Meat Trade in Central Africa” by Daniel Stiles 2011 (pdf link)**

photograph of poisoned spikes is from Ivory’s Curse** by C4ADS group. This report was commissioned by Born Free.

image of forest elephant in forest and image of empty forest are both from a photograph copyright Chris Johns/National Geographic and reproduced on pps 34-35 of UNEP’s 2014 Environmental Crime Crisis report. With apologies, the empty forest half was reversed.

photograph of elephant tusks being carried 2013 copyright National Geographic and Brent Stirton

pile of tusks photograph is cropped from an image that appeared in a July 16, 2008 post by Catherine Brahic on the Environment blog of the New Scientist.

the image of cut sections of tusks if cropped from a photo copyright STR/AP Photo/Scanpix. It is on the cover of UNEP’s report The Environmental Crime Crisis, 2014.

tusk morphology diagram is from the US Fish and Wildlife Service website, but I think they lifted it from somewhere else.
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