Elephants are extraordinary animals. They're super smart and emotional, and their relationships are complex. They've been known to show compassion, empathy, altruism, self-awareness and grief. People the world over love elephants; some even worship them.
But these majestic creatures are also one of the planet's most threatened. African elephants, for instance, are being driven to extinction by poaching, killed en masse for their magnificent tusks. “I could take you tomorrow to a park and show you fresh carcasses. It’s a tidal wave of destruction flooding across the continent,” long-time ranger and conservationist Rory Young told The Huffington Post last month. “Ivory is beautiful. The problem is, we just can’t do this anymore.”
WARNING: Graphic photos below.
For a person in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere, the poaching crisis may seem like a problem reserved for Africa or Asia, where ivory is coveted as a luxury good; but illegal ivory is found all over the planet. (Did you know that the U.S. is one of the biggest ivory markets in the world?) People everywhere have a part to play in saving the elephants. As Young put it: "It takes a whole movement all around us to fix the problem. Everyone’s responsible; everyone's to blame."
To commemorate World Elephant Day on Aug. 12, we've compiled a list of some of the most shocking numbers related to the poaching crisis. This is why we all should care.
The number of African elephants left in the wild. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, there may have been as many as 3 to 5 million African elephants in the wild in the 1930s and 1940s. Widespread poaching, however, decimated populations all across the continent from the 1950s onward.
The year some conservationists say African elephants may go extinct if rampant poaching doesn't stop. In 2008, conservationists warned that African elephants would become basically extinct by 2020 if widespread poaching wasn't curbed. Young told The Huffington Post he's "absolutely convinced" that elephants could be wiped out in the next few years.
The estimated number of elephants killed in Africa every year for their ivory, which is often sold as ornaments, jewelry, chopsticks and other gift items. China is a major importer of ivory, as are countries like Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore.
A customer, left, shops for ivory bracelets at an ivory shop in Nakhon Sawan province, 130 miles north of Bangkok, Thailand, April 17, 2002.
The price of a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of ivory in China. As demand for ivory rises across Asia, the price of ivory in China has tripled in the past four years, per a Save the Elephants report released earlier this year. "Rising incomes are spurring even greater demand," writes NPR, "and many wealthy Chinese are buying ivory statues and carvings as investments."
A rotting elephant carcass in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, after poachers poisoned waterholes with cyanide, Sept. 29, 2013.
The number of elephants killed by cyanide in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last year after poachers laced waterholes with the poison. Several lions, hyenas and other animals were also poisoned to death. Poachers, who are sometimes armed with machine guns and sophisticated technology like GPS equipment and night-vision goggles, use a variety of methods to kill elephants. The animals are sometimes shot or trapped with snares, and their tusks are sometimes hacked out with an axe while the animal is still alive. Activist Jackie Cittone Magid wrote in a blog post last year that elephants simply "don't stand a chance" against the brutal and unpredictable methods employed by poachers.
This haunting video, created by the Wildlife Conservation Society, captures the sounds of an elephant fleeing from poachers as it is shot repeatedly.
The amount al-Shabab, Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked terror group, might be raising every month through the illegal ivory trade. The New Scientist wrote earlier this year that ivory poaching "funds most war and terrorism in Africa," where terrorist groups like the Lord's Resistance Army and Boko Haram engage in ivory poaching and trafficking. "It is blood ivory," wrote Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in an op-ed for CNN earlier this year. "Stopping the ivory trade has become not only a matter of conservation but one of national security and international stability."
In this photo, taken May 21, 2014, rangers stand next to the remains of elephants killed by poachers in the Garamba National Park, situated in Democratic Republic of Congo.
The amount, in tons, of illegal ivory confiscated in large-scale seizures in 2013, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The international body, which monitors endangered species, has said that the amount of ivory seized has tripled since 2003. "Populations of elephants in Africa continue to be under severe threat as the illegal trade in ivory grows," CITES said in a news release last year.
The amount, in tons, of seized illegal ivory that the U.S. destroyed last year. In a historic -- and symbolic -- move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 20 years' worth of accumulated contraband ivory at an event in Colorado in November. "Most people don’t realize that the U.S. is the second biggest ivory market in the world [after China], with epicenters in New York, California and Hawaii,” Elly Pepper, a policy advocate for the National Resource Defense Council, told Salon.com earlier this year. Pepper's comments came on the heels of the White House's announcement in February that the U.S. would be cracking down on the country's illegal ivory trade. "By creating this national strategy, the U.S. is recognizing that we are part of the problem and that we’re going to step up our efforts to end this crisis," Pepper told Salon.
Six tons of ivory confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service is displayed during the U.S. Ivory Crush event at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge on Nov. 14, 2013, in Commerce City, Colorado. The stockpile of African and Asian elephant ivory seized by FWS law enforcement officers since the late 1980s was pulverized by a rock crusher.
The amount, in tons, of illegal ivory that was destroyed in France earlier this year. According to France24.com, it was the "first time ivory has been publicly destroyed in Europe since a global trade ban was imposed in 1989." In addition to the U.S. and France, China, Belgium and the Philippines also have voluntarily crushed all or part of their ivory stockpiles in recent years.
The number of years that it can take for a baby elephant to be completely weaned off its mother's milk. For the first few years of their lives, baby elephants are completely reliant on their mothers; so when a mother elephant is killed by poachers, that can sometimes mean the death of the orphaned calf as well. According to 60 Minutes, a young elephant can usually only survive a day or two without milk.
The lifespan of an African elephant in the wild. Though African elephants can live for a very long time, many are killed by poachers before they reach old age. Sometimes, poachers even target youngsters without tusks. In April, for instance, the Telegraph reported that six elephants, including four tuskless juveniles, had been shot dead in a private reserve in Kenya. A wildlife official told the news outlet that the killings may have been partly motivated by "revenge against officials."
The number of Asian elephants left in the wild. Though this post has focused on African elephants and the poaching crisis, the plight of the Asian elephant can't be forgotten. Asian elephants are sometimes poached for their tusks, but a bigger threat facing them is habitat destruction. "In the face of rapidly growing human populations, the Asian elephants' habitat is shrinking fast and wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated and unable to mingle as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements," the World Wide Fund for Nature writes. In addition, wild Asian elephants are sometimes captured for domestic use (for the timber industry, for instance, or the illegal wildlife trade), further threatening wild populations.
An Indian villager offers prayers over the carcass of an elephant lying on a field after it was electrocuted at Singhijhora village near Mahananda Wildlife Sanctury, some 9 miles from Siliguri on June 1, 2014. The 15-year old male elephant was found electrocuted in a cornfield, where villagers had erected electric fencing to protect their crops from foraging pachyderms.