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Why Do People Poach Elephants?

What is poaching? Why is it so hard to combat? And why are elephants in particular so often the target of poachers?

February 25, 2021

Understanding what poaching is, why elephants are particularly vulnerable, and the effects of elephant poaching can help people learn more about how to save elephants from poaching. 

What is Poaching?

Poaching refers to illegally hunting and killing or transporting wild animals. Poaching occurs on a global basis, with thousands of species of animals being targeted. Every year, millions of animals are captured or killed, including large mammals such as elephants and rhinos, as well as monkeys, lizards and less recognizable animals. 

Poaching comes down to the demand for wild animals. The demand is global but is particularly strong in China and other parts of Asia, where people typically use poached animals to create traditional medicines, to serve as delicacies or to keep as exotic pets. Elephants are poached primarily for ivory, and rhinos for their horns.

Poaching threatens many species and can contribute to extinction. It can also have a tremendous impact on the environment, especially when a keystone species such as the elephant is targeted. A keystone species is an animal that plays a critical role in its ecological community. The removal or reduction of a keystone species can have negative consequences on its entire ecosystem, affecting many other species of animals and plants as well. 

Understanding Elephants and Behavior 

Elephants are the largest mammals on land and are characterized by their long trunks, large ears and huge bodies. They are found in 37 countries in Africa as well as in Asia. Elephants rely on their trunks to siphon up water for drinking and bathing, to greet and touch and other elephants, to sound warnings and to pick up objects.
 
It is their tusks, however, that place them in danger of poaching. Both female and male African elephants grow tusks, which are actually long, extended teeth. Elephants use these extended teeth for a number of purposes, including stripping bark from trees for food, moving objects and for defense against predators. In dry times or when water is scarce, elephants will use their tusks to dig in the ground for water. Like humans being right- or left-handed, elephants can be right- or left-tusked, which means they tend to use one more than the other.
 
African elephants can weigh up to 8 tons and are larger than Asian elephants. Asian elephants have smaller ears and are also less likely to have tusks — female Asian elephants do not grow tusks, and not all males do. These makes them less of a target for poachers.
 
In Africa, there are two types of subspecies of elephants: the forest elephant and the savanna, or bush, elephant. The savanna elephant is the one that people tend to think of when they picture an elephant. It is larger than the forest elephant and is found in greater numbers. The tusks of the savanna elephant curve upward, and like all tusks, continue growing throughout the elephant’s life.
 
Forest elephants, as their name implies, live in thickly forested areas in Central and West Africa. They are more elusive than savanna elephants and are more difficult to count because of their habitat preferences. Researchers usually estimate their numbers based on the dung that they find instead of counting the number of animals they actually see.
 
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. Females and calves live together in related groups, headed by a matriarch, or female leader, for years. An adult female elephant is pregnant for 22 months before she gives birth to a single calf every four or five years. The adult elephants care for the calves, and female calves may stay with the herd for their entire lives. Male calves leave when they grow up and then live alone or in small groups with other males.
 
Because of their size, elephants need large areas of land to meet their requirements for space, food and water. In just one day, one elephant can eat hundreds of pounds of plants, spending up to 18 hours feeding. Because of the variety of plants they eat, they scatter the seeds of a wide range of plants throughout the areas they travel via their dung. 

The Impact of Elephant Poaching 

The poaching of elephants has consequences beyond the obvious. First of all, there is the loss of these beautiful creatures: statistics indicated a mortality rate from poaching in Africa of more than 10% at its peak in 2011. About 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2014 and 2017. Today, it’s estimated that poaching is responsible for the deaths of 10,000 to 15,000 elephants every year. With only about 350,000 elephants left in Africa, the animals are in danger of being eliminated there. They survive in small groups that are heavily protected. They are considered a vulnerable species, while the Asian elephant is endangered. 

Recent research has found that if elephants continue to be poached, the decrease in population will affect the majority of the forests in Central Africa. This is due to the way elephants help disperse seeds, spreading different species of plants much further than would happen without them. The nitrogen contained in elephant dung also plays a vital role in these forests, as nitrogen is essential for tree growth. Fewer elephants means less tree growth, and that impacts the plants and animals that thrive in those environments. 

Elephant poaching also affects communities. People may be drawn to it for the money but are more likely to be prosecuted than those higher up the poaching “food chain,” which can affect families as well. Rangers who help protect elephants and other wildlife are also in danger of being killed by poachers, further increasing the harm to individuals, families and communities. 

What Can We Do to Stop Elephant Poaching?

What is being done to stop elephant poaching? There are two basic ways to help prevent poaching: reduce the demand for ivory and reduce the supply though protective measures.

Researchers believe that demand for ivory primarily stems from eastern Asian countries, especially China. Ivory has long been in demand in China, and as more people there become able to afford it, the market for it has grown, which encourages poaching. China did pass an ivory trade ban in 2017, but as long as people want ivory, elephant poaching is likely to continue. 

Another way to reduce poaching is by having more effective law enforcement to protect the elephants throughout Africa. However, this can be complicated by the fact that impoverished communities are more likely to allow poaching as it may be one of the few ways for people to support their families.
 
If you, like many people, want to help end elephant poaching and protect these animals and the environments in which they live, there are a variety of things you can do. Do not buy ivory or products that contain it. Speak out against poaching, and support the anti-elephant-poaching organization of your choice. 

How IAPF Works to Stop Elephant Poaching 

The International Anti-Poaching Foundation was founded in 2009. Since then, it has taken a novel and effective approach to conservation, transforming what has traditionally been an adversarial approach to one that is an empowering, innovative and gender-diverse model with a goal of protecting habitats and wildlife. 

Our animal conservation organization not only protects and restores nature but helps empower indigenous communities while enhancing national conservation efforts. As an anti-poaching charity, we look at the big picture. IAPF starts from the ground up, targeting and working with the local residents who live near the habitat and wildlife that need protecting. IAPF educates, trains and empowers local women so that they can become rangers. These women are rewarded with consistent income and the opportunity to have jobs that are respected in their community. 

There are multiple ways to get involved to help further our mission, but the best way is to make a donation to our unique, effective wildlife conservation charity.