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.



  1. Nanette
    July 28, 2014, 11:17 pm

    By the time Costas Christ’s recommendations are put into place, all the elephants will be dead! The carrot has not worked; the stick now needs to be employed. We need to bring technology, such a drones, to monitor the entirety of Africa where elephants exist. There must be quick and dire consequences for those who are slaughtering these magnificent, intelligent animals. After thousands and thousands of torturous deaths and suffering, little has changed. Is the will really there to do what’s needed? Check out the salaries of the directors of some of the major nonprofits orgs who claim success in their endeavors: WCS director, nearly $1,000,000. There needs to be an entirely new way of approaching this tragedy! And, it needs to happen now! Stopping trade, ending poverty? Not in our lifetimes. The elephants will have been long gone before those pipe dreams come to fruition.

  2. sakke hummermeimi
    January 14, 2014, 6:37 am

    I like to save Elephants. Please send me information how to.

  3. Leo Felix
    November 21, 2013, 3:43 pm

    Strongly endorse Don Frame’s comments above. Additional thoughts: Gamba grass-infested areas of Australia should be used to establish a strategic reserve elephant population, against the day that the African elephant becomes extinct in its original homeland. Economic development and democratisation are the only forces that will bring the nations of Africa enough prosperity to afford to maintain secure elephant populations. And give a lot of thought to proving Poole, Moss & co. wrong, because if they are correct, then the elephant is doomed.

  4. Abi
    New York City
    September 10, 2013, 12:31 pm

    Poor animals :( Going to make a donation right now.. Hope more people help out!

  5. Mike Elephant
    August 30, 2013, 3:06 pm

    This is the whole reason that we started March for Elephants, a group that is fighting hard to ban Ivory trade, as well as informing the world about the plight of the elephant. Please visit to learn more. Also, you can donate to our Times Square billboard and help these majestic animals by visiting The elephants need our help!

  6. ayuinthewild safaris Sri Lanka
    Sri Lanka
    August 28, 2013, 2:04 am

    Totally endorse the statement “complete moratorium on ivory sales and the destruction of existing and future stockpiles” !! It’s appalling how humans can bring about the destruction of nature and the natural world in our infinite pursuit of wealth and prosperity. Great article.

  7. Don Frame
    August 27, 2013, 5:49 pm

    The only way to save the elephants is to hunt them sustainably with the proceeds A) protecting the elephants and B) benefiting the people that live there, as natural resources have done forever. As long as poor people can make money poaching, there isn’t enough law enforcement in the world to protect them with the resources that exist. Your faith in people responding to the law, thinking that people in Chine will quit buying ivory is charming, but it hasn’t ever worked. See prohibition, the War on Drugs, all of the US treaties with the USSR and so on. Why do you think there are black markets in everything forbidden everywhere?

    You are naive.

  8. shaungave
    August 27, 2013, 8:20 am

    It was a very useful shared information about elephants. It felt bad by coming to know that 60,000 elephants were killed..

  9. jeremy smith
    August 27, 2013, 5:54 am

    Agree with everything Costas says here. For people keen to support option 2 – “choose a tour operator that actively supports elephant conservation”, I am building a social enterprise website dedicated to promoting just these sorts of businesses at – all ideas and support hugely welcome, as it’s just me at the moment…