Colorado State Elephant Expert and International Partners Speak Out About Poaching and Illegal Ivory Trade Industry

Elephant experts from around the world, including one from Colorado State University, are calling for a moratorium on legal ivory sales to be upheld to protect elephant populations from being slaughtered for their valuable tusks. A policy commentary from 27 co-authors was published in the journal Science this week arguing that international regulating bodies must enforce rules and not allow legal ivory sales among nations failing to control illegal ivory trade, particularly when widespread illegal killing is dangerously increasing.

The African nations of Zambia and Tanzania are petitioning the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — called CITES — for permission to sell stockpiles of ivory tusks worth nearly $18 million. CITES has allowed select nations with large and growing elephant populations to sell ivory and use the profits for elephant conservation. However, CSU wildlife biologist George Wittemyer and his co-authors are arguing that recent evidence of active illegal ivory trade in the petitioning countries should preclude them from legal trade.

The Science paper reflects data that shows a majority of black market ivory seized during the past few years have originated in Zambia and Tanzania. And illegal killing has caused serious declines in the petitioning countries populations, with Tanzania’s elephant population alone having declined by more than 30,000 elephants between 2006 and 2009.The authors call for decisions made by CITES to place science over politics and uphold regulating criteria.

“During the past three decades, many African elephant populations have been decimated by ivory poaching. Poaching levels are once again increasing across the continent primarily to supply black-market ivory demand in Asia. Most strikingly, elephants have been eradicated from large sections of central Africa, a former strong hold of the species, and declines in some of the highest profile national parks in this region have been recorded in excess of 85 percent,” said Wittemyer, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, part of the Warner College of Natural Resources.

Wittemyer has been monitoring the status of an at-risk elephant population in northern Kenya for the past 13 years. MIKE, or Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants, supports 45 such monitoring stations in Africa, and results show definitively an upsurge in continental levels of illegal killing in recent years. Wittemyer collaborates with the Save the Elephants Foundation and the Kenya Wildlife Service on the MIKE project.

“I’ve been working with my collaborators on how we can monitor the levels of illegal killing of elephant populations and use it to keep close tabs on the levels of threat to the populations,” Wittemyer said. “The MIKE program was implemented to see if trends in illegal killing could be identified, and the increasing levels we are seeing are a warning signal that something is going on to the detriment of the species.”

Elephants are primarily hunted for their ivory and some are killed for meat. Wittemyer says that most of his research identifies human impacts as the primary force affecting elephants.

“What my colleagues and I highlight in this paper is that certain precursors are supposed to be met for the approval of legal ivory trade. We need to adhere to these protocols regarding control of illegal trade,” said Wittemyer. “If these principles are not enforced, we’re destined to make some big mistakes. The ivory trade is a major economic engine and it can be dangerous to elephant populations if its impacts are not watched carefully or if monitoring data are not used to inform decisions regarding trade allowances.”

The paper’s lead author is from the University of Washington. To read the full article, visit