Imagine walking through the zoo of the future. Where there once stood the stately elephant, now only a sign remains, reminding us that the creatures are extinct. This could be our new reality, if illegal poaching continues at its current rate.
A new study shows horrifying statistics: poachers are responsible for the deaths of 100,000 elephants over the past three years, thanks to a growing middle class in China and a heavy demand for ivory, which comes from elephants' tusks.
It's no secret that poachers are a threat to the survival of the elephant species. However, this study sheds light on just how bad the situation really is by being the first such analysis of its kind.
Leading experts led the study and found an increase in elephants that were illegally killed over the past several years. The rate has increased from 25 percent of the elephant population to a whopping 65 percent today. This is higher than the rate at which elephants reproduce, meaning that if the poaching continues, elephants could soon be extinct.
According to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, poachers are banding together in groups to slaughter elephants in high numbers.
"Poachers are taking these animals, sometimes in unimaginably high numbers, and using the weapons of war to efficiently kill large herds of wild, innocent animals," says the organization. "Sub-machine guns, night vision goggles and even helicopters are used to slaughter up to 100 elephants each day,"
Researchers studied elephant deaths and killings in Kenya and used mathematical models to come up with their numbers. They also looked at carcass data across Africa.
"What came out was disastrous," says George Wittemyer, study lead author. "The numbers are astounding."
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also reported data that shows that in 2011 alone, poachers killed nearly 25,000 elephants over four monitored areas. They estimate that poachers killed a total of 40,000 elephants in that single year across Africa.
There is some good news. Elephants, as a species, have survived similar poaching trends, both in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the current situation depends on the demand for ivory going down, more poachers being caught and prosecuted, and China cracking down on the illegal trade of ivory. Keeping count of elephants and their deaths also helps, although it's often difficult.
Some areas, though, are safer for elephants. The study showed that in Botswana, elephants are heavily protected.