Let's keep them around.  Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Let's keep them around.  Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no consensus on just how many of Africa’s elephants are left. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, estimates that the population could be as few as 470,000 and as many as 690,000. Whatever the exact figure, it’s clear that China’s demand for ivory has created significant financial incentives for poachers to hunt the herds that remain scattered across the continent.

On Monday, a group of researchers published what they billed “the most comprehensive assessment of illegal ivory harvest to date.” Their conclusion, based on two methods of assessing illegal killing, is that poaching has not only reduced elephant populations, but it has also become unsustainable. The problem, beyond how many elephants are being killed, is the lack of surviving males in their prime years.

The numbers are shocking. From 2010 -- the year during which "an overharvest-driven decline" probably started -- to 2012, about 33,630 animals were poached annually on average, for an annual average illegal killing rate of about 6.8 percent. In 2011, the most deadly year surveyed, somewhere from 35,000 to 47,000 elephants were poached (according to one of the methods), roughly an 8 percent rate. Things are improving: Preliminary data for 2013 suggest that the poaching rate slowed, though to a still unsustainable 3.7 percent.

Poaching rates correlate with the local black-market price of ivory, according to the study. Much of the seized ivory is bound for (or is already in) China. The authors suggest that reducing Chinese demand "should be a priority." Indeed, the authors suggest more research is needed on the role of a late-2011 ivory-auction restriction in China; notably, however, the local black-market price remained steady in 2012.

It’s an interesting point. After all, the sheer numbers documented in the study suggest that anti-poaching efforts in Africa -- though laudable and often successful -- are ultimately stopgap measures on a vast continent with elephant herds located in countries that have highly variable economic and political circumstances. Soon, conservationists are going to have to focus on reducing demand.

That won’t be easy. Ivory carving has a long and illustrious artistic history in China. Antiques are highly prized, but even newly carved ivory chopsticks and figurines remain status-enhancing, high-end gifts.

But just because it’s difficult to stem Chinese demand for a high-end animal product doesn’t mean it's impossible. Consider ongoing campaigns against eating shark fins. Ten years ago, shark-fin soup was almost obligatorily served at Chinese wedding banquets, official dinners and other high-status events. Demand was huge: Seafood markets across Asia were packed with shark fins.

Enter Yao Ming, the superstar basketball player and one of China’s most beloved celebrities. Years ago he joined a campaign by WildAid, a conservation group, fighting against the shark-fin trade. Could Yao, some other celebrities and public education change China’s attitude toward a status-affirming luxury product?

In early August, WildAid released a report titled "Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand, China." According to its data, 85 percent of surveyed Chinese consumers reported they had given up eating shark-fin soup in the last three years, with almost two-thirds of them citing awareness campaigns. Traders in Guangzhou also reported drastic price decreases in wholesale prices (almost 50 percent on average) over the past one to two years. Of course, this is a report from WildAid itself, but speaking personally, over the last two years, I’ve seen shark fin dropped from restaurant menus and watched the once-sprawling shark-fin section of Shanghai’s largest seafood market shrink to a fraction of its former self.

Can a similar campaign on behalf of elephants make a difference? According to one Chinese ivory expert, many Chinese may not know that their collectibles come from poached elephants. Indeed, Yao Ming, together with WildAid and others, have taken up the cause of the elephants as well as rhinos. Ming appears in a documentary highlighting the effects of the illegal wildlife trade and petitioned the Chinese government to impose a complete ivory ban. These are certainly modest steps, but they might just be the best hope that Africa’s elephants have.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.