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WESSA Elephant Initiative

Current situation
There has been an acceleration in the rate at which wild elephant populations are decreasing across Africa, driven by continued illegal ivory poaching and trade. Studies show that every hour four elephants are killed in Africa for their ivory.

Central Africa and East Africa are experiencing extreme levels of poaching, with Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya being current poaching hot-spots that have seen significant decreases in their local populations. West Africa has already lost nearly all its elephants, now having only 1.6% of the continents population.  

Due to poaching pressure further north, Southern Africa is now home to close to 55% of Africa’s elephants compared to 20 years ago where the figure was only 21%.  The threat of illegal killings is, however, already being felt in Southern Africa. 

Elephant tusks are sold on lucrative illegal markets, the predominant consumers being Vietnam, China, the Philippines and the USA. There is even evidence of South Africa being a conduit for ivory exports to Malaysia. 

It is a sad truth that often poor locals are recruited to do the dirty work to supply ivory to transnational syndicates. In some cases - especially in Central and West Africa - militia/terrorist groups are also involved as they use the profits from ivory to fund their wars, which lead to local and regional instability.

What is the concern?
The loss of elephants would be devastating from a humanity and environment perspective. They are termed “megafauna” which paints an apt picture of the importance and the influence that these creatures have on shaping their environment, where their existence is not only for their own benefit but other species too. To lose these majestic animals in the wild would be a tragedy.

What is WESSA doing?
WESSA has been involved in elephant conservation issues for possibly most of its almost 90 year existence. Elephants and their conservation were central to WESSAs successful campaigning for the establishment of the Kruger National Park in 1926 and the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931 (in addition to campaigning for the expansion of the park in 2002).

Much of WESSA’s current elephant work is done in collaboration with Elephants Alive which works in association with Save the Elephants. Elephant’s Alive has focused on acquiring over a decade’s worth of real-time, accurate data in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier region, which has been collected by good quality satellite tracking collars in order to investigate the possible drivers of elephant movements which could include nutritional, social or safety benefits. Blood samples have been taken from all the elephants for DNA analyses and tissue samples from possible virus infected sites have also been taken. These will help further virus research which is critical, especially where populations are contracting. WESSA has been involved in this project for six years and is committed to expanding its role in elephant conservation and management in Southern Africa.

WESSA is also working to address the situation by:

  • Exploring a funded research study of elephant contraception, in partnership with a provincial conservation agency, which we believe will contribute to making available practical elephant management options in the face of the conflicted status of elephants in our country’s reserves.  
  • Raising awareness about wildlife crime and the need for extensive ecosystem conservation by using elephants as a “keystone” species.
  • Raising awareness around elephant poaching and the trade of ivory as a threat to the survival of many elephant populations across Africa. We are also looking to draw on the challenges posed to rhinos and other high-value wildlife which is being traded transnationally by criminal syndicates.
  • Contributing to improved elephant population management in South Africa, through our involvement with Elephants Alive, with an emphasis on genetic optimisation including retaining some of the last big tusker genetics on the continent
  • Enhancing the values of elephants to humans – supporting sustainable economies.
  • Educating the youth about elephants by sharing knowledge and ideas about the plight of elephants, and what can be done to ensure their survival into the future. The WESSA EnviroKids 4th quarter 2013 Envirokids edition focused purely on elephants with a view to developing the next generation of elephant conservationists. This resource is being republished to serve education purposes beyond South Africa where elephant poaching is a much bigger concern.
  • Calling for areas which are suitable for elephants to re-established populations.


View our African elephant infographic

Latest News


Reports of intense elephant poaching beyond our borders are a regular occurrence and South African reserve managers fear the time when poachers turn their greedy eyes to the remaining herds protected in local reserves.

So far incidents of elephant poaching within South Africa have fortunately been insignificant when compared to rhino poaching, but the signs are there that we are not immune to this scourge. Only last month a case of ivory poaching was confirmed in a reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. There are arguably no remaining truly free-roaming elephants in South Africa, but our reserve fences and systems have at least provided them with some protection, which has been enhanced in recent times by the security upgrade investments necessitated by the current rhino poaching situation.

The conundrum for managers of some reserves in South Africa is that the elephant populations have grown to such numbers that threaten the very biodiversity objectives of those reserves.

Elephants are the only animals besides man that can completely modify their environment from one state to another. With their numbers unchecked, elephants have the potential to significantly impact the survival of other plant and animal species within their ecosystems. This outcome is a considerable risk in a closed reserve system where the objective is to manage the preservation of all biodiversity. One does not want to get into a situation, for example, where elephants outcompete black rhinos for food on a reserve and run the risk of them starving to death.

While reserves may be struggling to maintain a stable state due to burgeoning elephant populations, conservation authorities are reluctant to resort to culling elephants – especially in the face of a continent-wide decline in elephants due to rampant poaching for their ivory. Alternative methods to culling – such as translocation, reserve expansion, manipulation of water sources and attempting to herd elephant groups out of the protected Kruger National Park across into Mozambique and Zimbabwe – have been met with limited success.

One proposed long-term solution to this conservation conundrum is the development of an effective and efficient elephant contraceptive. This proposed intervention has already been the subject of much research and would offer a method of slowing down the growth of closed populations. This unnatural interference could, however, also have unintended side-effects on elephant herds’ social organisation and on their genetic diversity.

WESSA will therefore shortly be instigating a funded research study of elephant contraception, in partnership with a provincial conservation agency. We believe this will contribute to making available practical elephant management options in the face of the conflicted status of elephants in our country’s reserves.


The news that Mozambique police seized 340 elephant tusks and 65 rhino horns last Thursday is deeply disturbing. The ivory was from 170 elephants, most probably killed within the Mozambique conservation areas bordering Kruger, but the rhino horns would have come from South Africa. An Asian man was arrested near Maputo at a house where the freshly poached hoard was hidden. Kudos to the Mozambique police for making this arrest, but worryingly, how soon will it be that the ivory is hacked out of Kruger’s tuskers?

The WESSA Elephant Initiative in collaboration with Elephants Alive has been using satellite tracking collars to study the drivers of elephant movement in Greater Limpopo Transfrontier region. By knowing why, when and where elephants are moving, better security arrangements can be made to protect these crucial ecological and tourism revenue drivers.


As elephant herds dwindle to the north of our borders it is only a matter of time before poachers turn their guns on South Africa’s elephant population in a growing side business to rhino poaching. South Africa lost 1215 rhino in 2014, but only 2 elephants. Namibia, on the other hand, lost 76 elephants, and Zimbabwe and Mozambique tragically lost hundreds. Three elephants in north eastern Namibia have been poached since the start of 2015!

Poaching elephants is noisy (AK47s are mostly used) and time-consuming to hack out the tusks, carrying much higher risk in South Africa, where many of our reserves have rapid response units and gunfire detection systems. But rising demand in Asia will spur elephant poachers to decimate our herds as has been done across Central Africa.

Help us secure the populations of these majestic animals in the wild, forever, by making a donation to our work.