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Research / Discovery

George Wittemyer working to save the elephants as poaching death tolls escalate

July 8, 2013
By Bryony Wardell

George Wittemyer has spent the past 16 years intimately studying the ecology, social structure and habitat use of elephant populations in Samburu, Kenya.

George Wittemyer is studying the elephants in Samburu, Kenya.A tragic turn

In 2009, his research took a tragic turn as a poaching epidemic fueled by demand for ivory began sweeping the region and the entire continent.

“We began finding elephants that I have known and followed since they were only a year old shot with their tusks cut out,” said Wittemyer. “It was extremely troubling to see well-protected, well-documented elephants poached so brazenly, and it was an indicator of the magnitude of the crisis and the intensity of demand for illegal ivory.”

Wittemyer is an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology in the Warner College of Natural Resources and is also the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of Save the Elephants in Africa. He has gained global media attention in recent years and is recognized by the international wildlife community for his in-depth elephant research and scientific documentation on the effects of poaching on populations.

More poaching deaths than ever

Today, more elephants are being killed for their ivory than ever before, over 25,000 a year, and Wittemyer is working to save the species from extinction through scientific research and outreach efforts.

Wittemyer examines an elephant that has been killed by poachers and its tusks removed.Collaborating with teams of researchers from universities around the world and organizations including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and Save the Elephants, Wittemyer is helping to find new ways of studying the complex issue of poaching and its impacts on elephants as whole.

“More than 50 percent of elephant deaths in Samburu in 2011 were due to poaching, and this is affecting not just the death rate – but the entire social structure of these elephants” said Wittemyer. “Elephants are intelligent animals with strong memories and familial bonds. When adult elephants are killed, particularly the matriarchs of families, it disrupts the entire group and leaves behind orphans that lack their normal support structure.”

Informing policy makers and consumers

An elephant family in Samburu, Kenya.Wittemyer’s research is helping inform policy makers and potential consumers around the world about the detrimental impacts of the illegal ivory trade on the elephant species, and he hopes the information from his findings will help stem ivory demand and prevent the continued decline of elephant populations.

“Our research highlights the increasing decimation of one of the planet’s most charismatic and intelligent species – and illegal killing is being driven by conspicuous consumption, for trinkets,” said Wittemyer. “The world must realize this crisis and do something to save this important species before it is lost forever.”