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African elephants are the largest of Earth's land mammals. (Photograph by DLILLC, Corbis)

How to Save Africa’s Elephants

In the 1980s, I did a stint as a wildlife researcher in Kenya. I witnessed a decade of unprecedented slaughter of African elephants by poachers, out to profit from rising ivory demand in Asia’s fast-growing economies of the day.

By 1989, more than 600,000 elephants had been killed—half of Africa’s entire population (Kenya alone lost 85 percent of its herd), leading to a global ban shortly there-
after on the trade and sale of ivory by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Following the ivory ban, things started to improve: The number of elephants killed illegally declined, and their populations also began to rebound in Kenya and Tanzania.

But like a cancer that slows only to return and metastasize, the killing fields are back.

Dozens of elephants are currently being gunned down daily by high-tech poachers wielding AK-47s, part of highly organized international criminal networks. An estimated 25,000 African elephants were killed in 2011 alone (out of a population of about 500,000). And since 2007, the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled.

If the massacres do not stop, our children could be the last generation to see an African elephant in the wild. As travelers, we can—and must—do something about it. Here are the crucial actions to take.

1. Support an unequivocal and permanent ivory ban.

A few African governments with pockets of healthy herds have large stockpiles of ivory from culling operations and smuggler confiscations. Countries such as South Africa and Botswana want controlled legal sales of their ivory stocks, with the income providing funding for conservation. The argument has been that it would help drive down global prices and undercut the illegal black market trade. The problem: It hasn’t worked.

CITES already tested the sale of ivory stockpiles, with the unfortunate result that ivory prices dramatically increased. Conservationists point out that these legal ivory transactions sent mixed signals and reignited global demand, contributing to the current epidemic of “blood ivory.”

“The ivory trade has never and can never be managed sustainably, nor without total dominance of corruption, which is why we support a complete moratorium on ivory sales and the destruction of existing and future stockpiles,” reads a statement issued by a group of influential scientists, including Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss.

2. Choose a tour operator that actively supports elephant conservation.

What can be managed sustainably is tourism, and in Africa, travelers can play a vital role.

When you book a safari, ask if the tour visits community wildlife conservancies, which are one of the best hopes for saving Africa’s endangered elephants (three that do are Big Five Tours, Austin-Lehman Adventures, and our own National Geographic Expeditions).

3. Refuse to buy ivory for any reason.

It turns out that the Catholic Church is a huge consumer of ivory—used in religious icons and sold as tourist souvenirs. (Vatican City did not sign the CITES ivory ban.) And countries with large Catholic populations, such as the Philippines, are among the largest markets for ivory religious carvings.

The Vatican has recently proposed raising awareness about elephant poaching through its radio programs. But a clearly worded statement from Rome to Catholic clergy worldwide condemning any buying or selling of ivory by the faithful would be more effective.

4. Demand that China end its use of ivory.

The future of the African elephant ultimately rests with one country—China, by far the world’s largest market for ivory products.

Ivory sales are surging right along with today’s middle-class prosperity. While hoarding ivory to drive up prices, the government is also sponsoring ivory-carving schools, licensing carving factories, and allowing more retail outlets to meet rising demand.

Arguments in defense of age-old cultural traditions of ivory use in China ring hollow when the survival of a species is at stake and synthetic substitutes are easily available.

In 2012, basketball legend Yao Ming traveled to Kenya and returned shaken by the “harrowing experience” of witnessing how illegal ivory is obtained. His message: “Only elephants should own ivory.” He has been working since then to end poaching in Africa. If enough people follow his lead, and if his home country of China listens to his pleas, the needle could move for these majestic mammals.

5. Join with other elephant lovers.

Many organizations work for wildlife conservation. Two that focus on protecting African elephants are Save the Elephants and the U.K.-based Tusk Trust.

With the future of African elephants hanging by a thread, this is the moment for action.

Back in Kenya, I recall being mesmerized as the matriarch of an elephant family lumbered over to some bleached elephant bones. She picked up one in her trunk. She held it, then carried it for several feet before gently laying it down. The other elephants followed, inspecting and stroking the bones. I felt certain they recognized one of their own. Indeed, if we don’t act now, bones are all we’ll have left of these intelligent, majestic creatures.

Costas Christ is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler, where his column, “Tales From The Frontier” (of which this is one), appears regularly. Follow his story on Twitter @CostasChrist.