Elephant poaching in one of the world's most famous wildlife reserves has reached record levels, to satisfy the growing demand for ivory destined for traders in China, according to a group of elephant experts.
The highest poaching rates ever seen in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve were recorded in the first five months of this year. The number of elephants killed in the past two and half years has exceeded the total for the previous 11, according to the experts.
Samburu elephants are probably the most studied population in the world, yet this high level of scientific interest has not protected them from poachers who can earn a fortune from selling the ivory tusks of mature males, and even females.
George Wittemyer, of Colorado State University, and David Daballen and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, of Save the Elephants in Nairobi, say in joint letter to the journal Nature that there has recently been a distressing surge in ivory poaching, which has coincided an illegal trade in ivory.
"This ivory is mainly destined for China. Effective protection of elephants depends partly on more conservation investment, but mainly on stemming the demand for ivory and eliminating black-market trade – actions that mandate leadership from and co-operation with China," they say.
The selective poaching of bull elephants for their valuable tusks has led to a population with double the usual number of females. The ivory tusks of the biggest males can be sold for a price equivalent to 15 years' salary for a local unskilled labourer.
But even adult females, with their relatively smaller tusks, are now being targeted, the experts say. About one in every five groups of elephants – which have a matriarchal society – are without any mature females, while the number of orphans in the Samburu reserve has increased rapidly.
"These changes correlate with a near tripling of the total number of seizures of illegal ivory in or coming from Kenya and with rising ivory prices. Local black market prices around Samburu have more than doubled since 2007, and are an order of magnitude greater than in 1990," the experts say.
"Ivory demand and prices have reached a point at which poachers are willing to target well-protected, closely monitored populations. With many poorly protected, soft-target populations now over-harvested, the pressure on the Samburu elephant population may be a harbinger of what is to come for Africa's protected areas."
The Samburu ecosystem of northern Kenya covers some 8,900 square miles, consisting of a mosaic of cultivated areas and national reserves. Satellite tracking has shown that some bull elephants in particular migrate from one region to another along ancient migratory routes, often taking them through areas now cultivated by an expanding human population.