While humans have been poaching African elephants for their tusks for centuries, the continent is currently in the midst of an elephant slaughter that is worse than at any previous point in history. Experts say that poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year which could lead to their extinction in the near future. A ban on the international sale of ivory went into force in 1990, but rising demand from Asia, and increasingly insecure political environments in Africa, have ratcheted up the number of elephants under threat.
Key Milestones in Elephant Conservation
1500s - Estimates put the number of elephants on the African continent around 26 million when Europeans first started exploring.
Late 1800s - The mass production of combs, piano keys, brush handles and pool balls fuels an ivory frenzy in Europe. Learn more
Early 1900s - Shooting an African elephant is considered to be a great honor for Europeans on safari. Learn more
1913 - The U.S. is consuming two hundred tons of ivory per year. The African elephant population has dropped to an estimated 10 million. Learn more
1950s – Elephant slaughter begins to drastically increase with estimates that 250 elephants are killed every day. The increase correlates with many African regions gaining independence from colonial rule.
1973 - The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is agreed to on March 3, 1973.
1973 - The Endangered Species Act is signed into law on December 28, 1973, becoming immediately effective.
1977 - The African elephant is listed on CITES. International trade for commercial purposes continues; the international African ivory trade is regulated by CITES. Learn more
1978 - The African elephant is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A “special rule” allows for the commercial ivory trade to continue, including for the import and sale of African elephant ivory. Learn more
1979 – Elephant population is reported at 1.3 million according to the results of the first Pan-Africa elephant survey led by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
1988 - After ten years it becomes clear that the supposedly well-regulated international trade of African elephant ivory is a failure. The African elephant population has been cut by more than half in 10 years. Learn more
1989 - CITES agrees to list the African elephant on Appendix I, as a result a ban on the international sale of ivory goes into effect in early 1990.
1989 - Only 600,000 elephants remain. The African Elephant Conservation Act is passed, banning the import of African elephant ivory into the U.S.
1990s - Some elephant populations begin to show signs of recovery, especially in East Africa and in some southern African countries. Kenya’s population grows to more 30,000 by 2007 from an historic low of 16,000.
1997 - Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe submit proposals downlist their populations to Appendix II and to sell their ivory stockpiles. CITES approves the sales based on the positive status of these countries’ national herds. The first “one-off sale” occurs in 1999 to a single CITES-approved buyer, Japan.
2002 - South Africa submits a proposal to downlist their populations to Appendix II. South Africa plus Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe seek another “one-off sale”. This second one-off sale occurs in 2008 to two CITES-approved buyers, Japan and China. Conservationists fear that opening up a legal ivory market in China will lead to increased poaching.
2007 - The African Elephant Coalition (AEC) countries are successful in passing a CITES-instituted a 9-year moratorium on new ivory stockpile sale proposals.
2009-2013 - Empirical research, MIKE PIKE levels and ETIS ivory seizures demonstrate poaching of elephants for their tusks and trafficking of ivory is occurring at alarming levels, surpassing a level at which elephant populations can naturally reproduce -- populations across the continent go into net decline.
2011 - Numbers of poached elephants and large-scale ivory seizures are so high that it is labeled annus horibilis for the species.
2012 - Sudanese Janjaweed poachers travel across the Sahara desert to massacre several hundreds of elephants in the span of a few days in Bouba Ndjida National Park, Cameroon -- the scale of the killing is labeled as unprecendented.
2012 - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a Call to Action to world leaders to stop the epic slaughter of Africa’s elephants.
2012 - Growth of a consumer class in China increases demand for ivory. The price reaches $1,000 per pound in Beijing; low wages in Africa drive poachers to increasing harvesting. CITES recognizes that elephant poaching has again reached “unsustainable level.” Learn more
2013 - U.S. President Barack Obama passes Executive Order combating Wildlife Trafficking to attack the issue through a whole government approach.
2014 - Paul Allen and Elephants Without Borders launch The Great Elephant Census, the first-ever pan-African aerial census that will provide new, accurate data about the number and distribution of African elephants, information that will be critical to their future survival.
2015 - Great Elephant Census flights over 50% complete, some preliminary individual country data suggests dramatic drops in populations in some regions, and a few surprise herds in places where elephants did not previously exist.
2016 - Great Elephant Census results are announced, elephant populations have dropped 30% in surveyed areas with comparable data.
2016 - CITES passes resolution calling for all countries to close domestic ivory markets and votes down proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe to open legal ivory trade from their countries. CITES rejects proposal for elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to be uplisted to Appendix I.