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Elephants Know They’re Going Extinct


“Behind the numbers is a real tragedy of a very sentient creature, who really knows that there’s a genocide going on.”

Biologist Richard Ruggiero of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent 30 years working with forest elephants in central Africa. He says it’s bad enough that 25,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year; it’s even worse when you realize that the elephants know it.

“They understand the concept of mortality. They show signs of mourning their dead. They understand what tusks mean. They’ll pick them up from a carcass.”

Ruggiero is quoted in a short piece on NPR, commenting on a new study showing that forest elephants in Central Africa have declined by 62 percent in the last 10 years.

Where are the tusks from all these elephants going? Mostly to China:

The biggest contributor to the uptick in elephant killing is a huge spike in demand for ivory in China, where new wealth means more people can buy ivory.

Chinese collectors covet ivory for figurines, chopsticks and trinkets. China is by no means the only market, but wildlife experts say China consumes half the supply. A growing population of Chinese workers in Africa makes the trade that much easier. As a result, the price of ivory has shot up tenfold over the past five to seven years.

Fiona Maisels, who was part of the team doing the study, says that many of the young Chinese people who buy ivory trinkets seem to be blissfully ignorant about what they’re doing:

“Chinese students come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you know, what can we do? We had no idea,’ ” she says. “That’s the story that’s put out, [that] they’re anesthetized, the tusks are taken out, and they’re patted on the bottom and sent out to grow a new set.”

Forest elephants may now be on the brink of extinction, and the new study was published to coincide with the international meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is being held this week in Bangkok.