Monday, January 19, 2015

A Seneca cliff in the making: African elephants on the brink of extinction

The graph above refers to effects of the illegal hunting of African elephants. It is taken from a recent paper by Wittemyer et al.

Once you have given a name to a phenomenon and understood its causes, you can use it as a guide to understanding many other things. So, the concept of the "Seneca Cliff" tells us that the overexploitation of natural resources often leads to an abrupt decline that, often, takes people by surprise. In the case of biological resources, such as fisheries, the decline may be so fast and uncontrollable that it leads to the extinction or to the near extinction of the species being exploited. It has happened, for instance, for whales in 19th century and for the Atlantic cod.

If you keep in mind these historical examples, you can examine other cases and identify possible Seneca cliffs in the making. One such case is the ivory trade from the hunting of African elephants. If you look at the plots (from a recent paper), above, you see that the seized ivory mass has shown a considerable increase starting around 2008. It peaked in 2011, then declined. We can probably take these numbers as a "proxy" for the number of African elephants being killed - which is also visible as the red line in the upper box. 

This is very worrisome, because if killings decline, it may very well be because there are fewer elephants left to kill - just as the landings of the fishing industry tend to decline when the fish stocks are depleted. Considering how abruptly these things go (the "Seneca effect") then we may well be seeing a similar trend in progress for African elephants: that is, the prelude of an abrupt crash in their numbers. Considering that elephants are big and reproduce slowly, that may very well lead to their extinction.

On this subject, the authors of the paper seem to be very worried, too. The title, by itself, says it all: "Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants". In the text, we can read, among other things, that:

The population [of African elephants] was subjected to unsustainable rates of illegal killing between 2009 and 2012, escalating from a mean of 0.6% (SD = 0.4%) between 1998 and 2008 to a high of 8% in 2011 (Fig. 1). Annual illegal killing of elephants in the Samburu population during 2009 to 2012 exceeded those of all previous years of monitoring (1998–2008) with an estimated aggregate of 20.8% of the known elephants illegally killed during that 4-y period. ... Illegal killing rates were strongly correlated with black market ivory prices in the Samburu ecosystem. ... As a result of this illegal killing, the population currently suffers from few prime-aged males, strongly skewed sex ratios, and social disruption in the form of some collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans (immature elephants without a parent)

Are we going to lose the elephants forever? Right now, we can't say for sure; but when it will be clear that it is happening, it will probably be too late to do something about it. Doesn't that sound familiar?


  1. Ugo
    Your original thought if I understand it correctly was to illustrate the general phenomenon of 'Seneca Cliff'' having implication for all modes of ecological extinctions, especially those wrought by humans?

    What your examples also seem to illustrate is the 'market mechanism' by which the link with price will help drive the oscillations and then the extinction. For example, in this case the 'black market' price for ivory close to the source of supply could have been exacerbated, for example, by the destruction of stocks of illegal tusks - query?

    The roving global acquisition mechanism of increased purchasing power arising from an industrial population is a well-attested phenomenon over the last 300 years. There is a clear link thereby with technological capability.

    One of the ironies is the helpless position of science - on the one-hand promoted as the ever-expanding tool for economic expansion while at the same time on the other, ironically, providing the technical means to observe in real-time our driven behaviour toward cliffs.

    Regarding elephants, tigers and rhinos, we also see perhaps the results of a failed religiosity in China expressed as traditional faith in medical superstitions. These examples just happen to be in China - I could argue something even more profound for the failed Christian heresy of Progress (a term I came across recently) as still the prime driver of our ultimately self-destructive boom in technology.

    Meanwhile regarding medical superstition, I googled: medical superstition rhino horn ivory elephant


    1. "One of the ironies is the helpless position of science - on the one-hand promoted as the ever-expanding tool for economic expansion while at the same time on the other, ironically, providing the technical means to observe in real-time our driven behaviour toward cliffs. "

      On this Guy Debord (French author, and more or less founder of the "situationist" movement) had some quite amazing lines in 1971, in a little book called "la planète malade"(the sick planet) :

      "« L’époque qui a tous les moyens techniques d’altérer absolument les conditions de vie sur toute la Terre est également l’époque qui, par le même développement technique et scientifique séparé, dispose de tous les moyens de contrôle et de prévision mathématiquement indubitable pour mesurer exactement par avance où mène – et vers quelle date – la croissance automatique des forces productives aliénées de la société de classes : c’est à dire pour mesurer la dégradation rapide des conditions mêmes de la survie, au sens le plus général et le plus trivial du terme. »

      Roughly translated :

      " The time which has all the technological means to absolutely alter (or change) living conditions on the planet is also the time which, through the same scientific and technological developments, has all the measures/control instruments and mathematical "tools" to determine beyond doubt, where --and around when-- leads the automatic growth from the productive power of the alienated class society : that is the ability to measure the rapid degradation of survival conditions themselves, in the most general and basic sense of the word"

      PDF of the complete text :

  2. Humans have been driving species to extinction for many thousands of years. Of course, now we have the ability to do it much faster, but it is part of a long term pattern that is rarely acknowledged and often denied. Hands-down the best thing I have ever read is a book available for free online - you just have to launch each section from the table of contents. Beautifully written -

  3. There is one major difference between Peak Cod (discussed in a prior essay) and Peak Elephant. Peak Cod is aggravated by capital invested: modern craft for offshore fishing are quite expensive. The capitalist fisherman (or cod poacher) must keep up his payments, be the catch large or small. In contrast, capital needs are minimal for the elephant poacher. Elephant poachers can stop poaching and all they lose is the revenue. whereas the cod poacher who quits loses not only the revenue but still has to keep up his payments on his equipment.

    But as the elephant ivory supply goes down, the demand does not, so the earnings per elephant killed skyrockets. Never mind that the poacher who dodges the game wardens’ bullets gets but a pittance in comparison to the middlepersons.

    There are clear reasons for the Seneca Cliff in both Peak Cod and Peak Elephant.

  4. I fear that the main threat for elephants is not illegal hunting, but the increase in human population and the construction of new roads



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)