African elephants are split into two distinct species: the African bush elephant, the most prevalent species, and the smaller African forest elephant. The bush elephant is the world’s largest living species of land animal. In both African elephant species the males and females have tusks; these are modified incisors that can grow to weigh dozens of kilograms and are used for a variety of essential purposes in an elephant’s daily life. These tusks are a significant source of ivory which is used in ivory ornaments and jewelry, however mammoth tusks (page 21) are also being excavated and their ivory traded legally.
In 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed African elephants under Appendix I, which restricts international trade of their parts. However demand for ivory has continued to stimulate illegal trafficking and poaching of elephants. In 1997 and 2008 there were CITES-approved, one-off sales of government-held ivory stockpiles held by southern African governments. Read more about the one-off ivory sales in Buyers of Elephant Ivory ►
From 2003-2014, with the exception of 2005, CITES reports have shown that estimated levels of illegal elephant killings in Central Africa have been occurring at unsustainable levels relative to natural population growth. This means that elephants in this region are dying faster than they are able to reproduce. The same report indicates West Africa is also thought to be suffering from unsustainable levels of elephant poaching from 2007-2009 and 2011-2014. As a means of mitigating localized population losses a number of programs have arisen to protect elephants, reduce human-elephant conflict where elephants regularly come into contact with farms, and stop poaching. For decades there have also been elephant relocation programs, also known as translocation projects, which move elephants from areas of high-population or over-population to habitats that can sustain and benefit from their reintroduction. African bush elephant populations were estimated by the Great Elephant Census, which concluded in August 2016, at roughly 350,000 and in a separate census of African forest elephants an estimated 18,000-36,500 individuals in select protected parks.
Botswana is presently home to roughly one third of Africa’s largest elephant species and is a popular destination for tourists seeking the scenery of the ancient Kalahari Desert and the huge concentrations of wildlife in Chobe National Park. Botswana has faced severe poaching problems and within the last several years has made significant investments in the protection of its wildlife including wildlife relocation to safer internal areas; translocation of wildlife from dangerous areas of South Africa by the Rhino Without Borders campaign; wildlife monitoring through governmental and non-governmental organizations, including Elephants Without Borders; and support from its tourism industry.
The country has a low average population density and shares a porous northern land and river border with a sliver of Namibia to the north and Zambia on the other side. The river, which originates in Angola, is used commercially by all countries which it passes between and eventually flows to a point where Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe converge. Wildlife, including Botswana’s large elephant population, rely on this river for year-round water and therefore are at risk of several forms of human-wildlife conflict.
Controversial Policies: For many years Botswana had an “unwritten” shoot-to-kill policy may have translated into a “shoot-on-sight” in practice, while neighboring countries have policies of shooting only in self-defense with high standards of proof required that human lives were in danger. Several incidents since 2012, including a 2015 incident where two Namibians were shot allegedly while in possession of elephant ivory, sparked controversy over Botswana’s “shoot-to-kill” policy employed by the Botswana Defence Force in an area of Botswana that is largely uninhabited by humans, yet just on the other side of the border is a Namibian town. This incident may have prompted a regional governor of Namibia to warn potential poachers about crossing the border into Botswana. However poachers are not only suspected coming from Namibia. Zambian poachers have been caught fleeing Botswana into neighboring Zimbabwe after encountering the BDF. Members of a U.S. Congressional delegation visiting Botswana in 2016 have also voiced their concern over the shoot-to-kill policy, however the then-Minister of Environment Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama maintained that it was an effective policy when dealing with armed groups.
Differing border policies, resource usage policies, and counter-poaching methods have caused domestic and international political turmoil within the region that may have impacted Botswana’s internal policies. In May of 2018 President Masisi ordered anti-poaching units to be disarmed in border regions where 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans had been killed in 2015 alone.
In early September of 2018 the carcasses of 87 elephants were discovered within Botswana’s interior, dating back over a period of only several weeks, and were found with their tusks removed. Compared to recent years, having so many elephants illegally killed for ivory in a several week period is unprecedented. Historically poaching has been extremely limited and anti-poaching efforts have been focused on the vulnerable borders, not the interior of the country.
Limited or historical data on elephant poaching in Botswana will be updated at a later date.
Like some of the ancient and modern cultures in Vietnam and Thailand, select cultures in India have broken and trained wild elephants for domestic and military use over the past several hundred years. As many as 40% of Asia’s 50,000 elephants are thought to live in captivity today. In 1990 India had an estimated 17,000 to 22,000 wild elephants with at least another 2,200 living in captivity (10-13%) throughout 11 of India’s 25 states (now 29).
Legal and illegal hunting has taken a great toll on India’s elephant populations over the past two centuries. However the Asian elephant’s declining numbers can also be attributed to habitat loss and related results of human encroachment including deaths from road accidents (cars and trains), electrocution on high-voltage fence-lines, and as-of-yet unexplained mortality among young elephants. A longer-term problem faced by all three subspecies of Asian elephant rarely reflected in any poaching statistics will inevitably be the ability for females to find suitable mates. In Asian elephants males have tusks while females have no visible tusks at all. This has resulted in a disproportionate reduction in males in some regions and can cause negative population growth.
Elephant Poaching in Select Regions Confirmed by WPSI in India (2006-2017)
Sources: Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) 2014-2018, some data from unpublished WPSI sources.
Kenya is home to many national parks and national reserves that have provided a home to tens of thousands of elephants and thousands of rhinoceros. The Amboseli, Tsavo East, and Tsavo West National Parks, as well as the Maasai Mara National Reserve, are among the most popular tourist destinations in the country and help bring in hundreds of thousands of local and international visitors each year. Many of these parks and reserves are protected by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), established in 1990, which employs anti-poaching rangers and other personnel to combat local wildlife poaching as well as cross-border operations to arrest major wildlife parts traffickers. These traffickers bring ivory, leopard skins, and rhino horn into the country with the express intent to smuggle the products to foreign markets.
In an inventory conducted by Kenyan authorities and external groups concluded on 27 August, 2015 Kenyan authorities reported that government-held stockpiles were in possession of 25,052 pieces of ivory weighing 137,679 kg (303,530 pounds). The various stockpiles include raw elephant ivory collected by KWS from elephants who have died of natural and unnatural causes as well as ivory recovered by other agencies from poachers, traffickers, and raw and worked ivory shipments originating from inside and outside the country.
In a 2012 annual report the Kenya Wildlife Service noted that 384 elephants were lost to poaching that year, the highest on record in the country since 2005. That year the total elephant population within Kenya was estimated at roughly 38,000, but later KWS figures put the 2012 population at 35,538 with a decline in 2014 to 32,456. Since then the wild population has steadily increased through 2018 to an estimated 34,132.
Elephant Poaching in Kenya (2005-2017)
Sources: Kenya Wildlife Service Annual Report 2008, KWS Annual Report 2009, KWS Annual Report 2010, KWS Annual Report 2011, KWS Annual Report 2012, KWS Annual Report 2013, TRAFFIC.org, and KWS Elephant and Rhino Poaching and Trafficking Trends August 2018 (unpublished).
Namibia does not appear to regularly report to the public the poaching statistics within its borders. However the Namibian Sun reported 116 elephant deaths due to poaching and 10 rhinos poached from the period January 2012 – May 2014. According to news reports Namibia has suffered 101 elephants killed by poachers in 2016.
South Africa has the largest populations of rhinoceros of any African nation, but also boasts a prodigious elephant population within its national parks. For a number of reasons the famous Kruger National Park, an expansive 19,633 square kilometers (7,580 sq. mi), is the largest target in southern Africa and most of the statistics available focus on this region. In the past South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs as well as the South African National Parks (SAN Parks) have released quarterly data on both rhinoceros poaching statistics and arrests of suspected poachers; as of 2015 this data is released roughly twice a year and now includes elephant poaching statistics.
Over the years South Africa has culled its elephant populations for a variety of reasons, but ended this practice in 1994. At that time South Africa had an estimated population of nearly 8,000 elephants (page 10) and had culled 7,325 elephants between 1980 and 1994 (page 13). During that same period 1,259 elephants had been translocated out of Kruger National Park (page 8) to protected areas, zoos, or other regions within the country or to other countries including Namibia. Culling data is shown below to provide a comparison to historical elephant population numbers and to historical poaching numbers.
Recent Elephant Poaching Statistics in South Africa (1980-2020)
Below are more than 25 years worth of data on elephant poaching within South Africa. The majority of poaching incidents since 2014 have occurred in Kruger National Park where 22 elephants were killed during 2015. The previous year had only 2 illegal killings. This had followed a roughly 14-year period of no recorded elephant poaching within the park (2000-2013). 2016 saw an increase in elephant poaching within South Africa and particularly Kruger National park when 46 elephants were illegally killed. Throughout 2017 there were 67 poached in KNP and 1 illegally killed elsewhere in the country. The year of 2018 saw a slight uptick in poaching, with 71 elephants illegally killed in KNP and 1 elsewhere in the country, demonstrating for a fourth year in a row the intentional targeting by organized criminal syndicates of elephants in eastern South Africa bordering Mozambique. Kruger National Park and Marakele National Park were both victims of elephant poaching in 2019, with the country losing a total of at least 31 elephants that year. South Africa reported only 16 incidents of elephant poaching in 2020 and attributed a portion of this decline to the COVID-19 pandemic that impacted many countries in 2020. According to the Department of Environment, Forests and Fisheries, all elephant poaching incidents reported in the country happened in Kruger National Park.
Sources: South African Population of the African Elephant report by CITES. SAN Parks. ESPU 1999 (unpublished) Ivory Markets of Africa. Elephant poaching on the rise in Kruger by Oxpeckers. ENS-Newswire. ZA DEA Progress on ISMR February, 2017, ZA DEA Progress on ISMR January, 2018, ZA DEA Progress on ISMR February, 2019, and ZA DEFF Department Report on Rhino Poaching in 2020.
Re-use: Permission is openly granted to re-use the above elephant poaching chart with the PoachingFacts logo intact.
Historical Elephant Mortality Statistics in Kruger National Park (KNP) (1980-1999)
The data below reflects the scale of elephant culling within Kruger National Park up until the middle of the 1990s in comparison to the historical and current incidents of elephant poaching. These are official numbers provided by SAN Parks and related authorities to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but only applies to Kruger National Park. Data on elephant poaching was not provided by internal region and was not provided for other public land as is common for recent data on rhino poaching.
Only reports from 1998 and 1999 provided data on ivory seizures as a result of law enforcement or anti-poaching operations or recovery from dead elephants in Kruger National Park. Fifty-three tusks were seized in 1998 and 20 were seized in 1999.
Sources: South African Population of the African Elephant report by CITES. SAN Parks. ESPU 1999 (unpublished) Ivory Markets of Africa.
Below is a dataset relating to the time-frame of “Operation Stronghold,” which was designed to curb rhinoceros poaching and ran from roughly 1984 through as late as the end of 1993, but likely was concluded prior to the end of that year. The chart below also includes the preceding years of Zimbabwe’s “independence era” (when it’s alleged that no rhino were poached), which began after the former colony (formerly Rhodesia) gained official recognition as a nation independent of the United Kingdom, the white-minority government was ended, and changed its name to Zimbabwe.
Like its counterpart for rhino poaching, this chart illustrates the influx of poachers, primarily from Zambia, into Zimbabwe’s parks overseen by Zimbabwe’s Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management (DNPWLM, ZimParks). However the chart likely does not take into account the illegal hunting conducted by military and insurgent personnel during and after the Rhodesian Bush War and related conflicts. Nor does it take into account the government-authorized poaching of elephants, rhinoceroses, and other species in their own national parks during the 1980s, of already at-risk populations of elephants.
Historical Elephant Poaching in Zimbabwe (1980-1993)
Chart source: The Rhino Anti Poaching War Rages On, October 2011.