Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Too Big to Fail: Rescuing the African Elephant

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Too Big to Fail: Rescuing the African Elephant

Article excerpt


Today, there exists a confluence of complex and escalating threats to the natural environment in Africa. Wildlife populations are being decimated, forests cleared, and habitats-both animal and human-destroyed. Illegal trade in wildlife and forest products threatens both the environment and sustainable development. Despite urgent warnings from studies, research about changes in forest plant and animal composition remains fragmented and lacks consideration of the cascading ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural dimensions. Proposals aimed at environmental sustainability are conventionally siloed in their various disciplines, yet all agree that realistic solutions must incorporate cohesive and coordinated action at local, national, and international levels.

The illegal wildlife trade is a particularly perplexing piece of the current environmental emergency; untangling the web of poverty, crime, corruption, and governance dynamics continues to confound policy makers. In the case of Africa's elephants, the urgent task of reversing the escalation of poaching requires a carefully recalibrated mix of legislation, land management, enforcement, and demand-reduction strategies. The crisis facing this increasingly threatened species is emblematic of the challenge presented by all wildlife protection: components of demand and supply stretch across continents; official and unofficial realms must work together to find common ground; and the central question of price and pricelessness must be continually renegotiated in a changing world. Rapid changes in the African landscape have not only accelerated general species loss, but also refocused conservation efforts on the underlying systemic forces imperiling elephant populations. Increasingly dramatic degradation of livelihoods, security, and governance requires bolder and broader policy responses. This paper both discusses the elephant's threatened environment and reviews current thinking about how best to respond to the dynamic systems that are challenging effective conservation efforts.


There are two subspecies of African elephants-the savanna (bush) elephant and the forest elephant. Forest elephants comprise about 30 percent of Africa's elephants; they prefer the cover of the dense forest canopy of the Congo Basin, while savanna elephants are found in eastern and southern Africa. Both species are in sharp decline. Without intervention, wild elephants could be mostly extinct by the end of the next decade.1 No one is certain about how many elephants remain in Africa, and this lack of knowledge about exact numbers hampers preservation efforts. Since the turn of the century, the number of wild elephants has dropped from the millions to about half a million today. Driven primarily by the high value of ivory on the international market, elephant poaching has dramatically escalated over the last decade. In that time, elephants have suffered a dramatic decline of over 62 percent: from 2010 to 2012, more than 100,000 elephants were illegally killed by poachers seeking ivory or meat.2 Currently, elephants are being poached at a rate of about 100 each day, and estimates place the total surviving population at approximately 470,000.3

Trying to measure the size of the illegal trade in wildlife is difficult. Depending on the study, estimates range from USD 7 to 23 billion annually, placing the wildlife trade as the fourth largest illegitimate business globally.4 As with the illegal forest trade, the black market value of these exploited species represents a huge loss of economic potential for African countries. Targeted species are diverse and, in many cases, being poached to the limits of their existence.5 Along with elephants, a number of iconic species fall within this category: rhinos, tigers, and great apes. Increased globalization and the online marketplace have created a superhighway for poachers and traders to move wildlife parts around the globe. …

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