While South Africa is battling rhino poaching, it seems to be escaping the continental elephant purge. But not for long, writes Sipho Kings.
Tens of thousands of elephants were killed across Africa last year and populations are plummeting.
In 2007 there were roughly half a million elephants in Africa. This number has steadily grown after the trade in ivory was banned in 1989, until the last decade. Now there has been a dramatic increase in the mass killing of elephants.
In February over 300 elephants were killed at the Bouba N'Djida National Park in northern Cameroon. This number represents nearly half of the park's population.In response, the army launched an offensive against poachers who were freely operating in the park.
Similar killings have been occurring across eastern and western Africa. Tanzania is losing around 30 elephants a day, according to its government. And while the incidents of poaching in South Africa's neighbouring countries are increasing, it is not yet an issue here.
Julian Blanc, acting co-ordinator and data analyst at Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (Mike), said: "While poaching levels in southern Africa are not as high as in other parts of the continent, they are steadily increasing."
Mike is a child of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), and it has kept track of elephant poaching since the trade in ivory was banned.
Link between deaths and consumer demand
Blanc said that levels of poaching were increasing at all nine sites they monitor in southern Africa. In the past the region had been seen as secure. Last year these levels, on average, reached an unsustainable point, where the rate of poaching exceeds the natural population growth, he said. "If this trend continues, the situation could become as serious as elsewhere on the continent," he said.
But Kruger National Park and Etosha did not seem to be affected yet, he said. This could possibly be due to the wealth of these areas and better governance. "The Mike programme has found strong relationships between poaching levels and poverty, with higher levels at sites where people are comparatively poor," he said.
And like with the boom in rhino poaching, elephant deaths are directly linked to demand in consumer markets. "If demand continues to increase we could see elephant poaching spreading to these populations that are still considered secure," said Blanc.
Bryan Coll, media liaison at the United Nations Environment Programme, said he was surprised elephant poaching was not an issue in South Africa, given the devastation happening elsewhere. But he did say there was "a lot of concern about trends across the continent". And if the easily accessible populations in the north start to run out, it will be natural for poachers to turn to Southern Africa, where half the continent's elephants still reside, he said.
In its big re-zoning plan this year, Kruger Park made several allusions to the future problems with elephant poaching. The document repeatedly mentions "the threat of elephant poaching looming on the horizon".
'Most serious crisis'
And in looking at the surrounding countries and their growing problems with poaching, it also warned: "Elephant poaching is already occurring in some of our neighbouring countries and is threatening to spill into the park."
In its mid-year report, Cites said the rising levels of seized ivory were a good indicator of the increase in poaching. The levels of seized ivory from 2009 to last year were three of the five highest since trade was banned. This trade mostly left ports in Kenya and Tanzania, destined for China and Thailand, it said.
At the time Tom Milliken, leader of the Elephant and Rhino Programme at wildlife monitoring organisation Traffic, said: "Evidence is steadily mounting that shows that African elephants are facing their most serious crisis since international commercial trade in ivory was generally prohibited under Cites in 1989."
Louis Lemmer, spokesperson for the Honorary Rangers, said that elephant poaching had not yet become a problem in this area because of the availability of rhino horn. "As long as there is rhino horn still available, ivory poaching will probably remain on a low level," he said.
But given the rise of poaching elsewhere and the existing syndicates for rhino poaching in the region, it is a problem "which can easily start growing in our area too", he said.
Lemmer said it had been a huge problem in the 1980s and it took a concentrated effort and a very long time to eradicate it. "The one luck we have within the horrible rhino poaching situation is that measures being put in place to protect our rhino will also benefit elephant conservation."