Samuel Wasser has noticed that the tusks are getting smaller.
Since 2005, he has been helping customs officials analyze the vast quantities of illegally smuggled elephant ivory that circulate around the world. Such shipments are on the rise, and more than 40 tons are seized every year. At the same time, the average size of the confiscated tusks has fallen; having killed off many of the largest elephants, poachers are now turning their attention to younger individuals.
For example, Wasser, who is a conservationist at the University of Washington, recently investigated a seizure that comprised 1,800 tusks, most of which were under two feet long. A hundred or so were barely longer than a pencil, and hollow on the inside. Each one belonged to a calf who was just a few years old, and still dependent on its mother’s milk. Every pair represented a life that was ended for the sake of piddling amounts of ivory.
Elephant poaching really took off during the last decade, and it’s estimated that 111,000 individuals—up to a fifth of the full African population—have been killed since 2006. The slaughter is a local problem, but it eventually ties into organized crime networks that ship the plundered ivory around in huge containers that weigh half a ton or more. Once they leave port, these shipments are very hard to find. “There are so many containers on cargo ships that even the most sophisticated ports can inspect just 1 to 2 percent of them,” Wasser says. “If you’re a transnational criminal, you really just have to get your contraband into a container on a ship, and there’s a very low chance someone will find it in a search. We need to stop the trade before it enters into transit.”