Updated December 23, 2015
Wildlife Poaching in Africa: An Overview
Wildlife poaching occurs in many countries in Sub-Saharan
Africa, a region rich in biodiversity. Many African wildlife
species are poached for their body parts or bushmeat. While
poaching operations vary in complexity, scope, and scale,
those that involve the illegal killing of elephants and rhinos
are reportedly often carried out by sophisticated, highly
organized, and well-armed criminal groups. In recent years,
an increase in demand in Asia has driven a surge in
poaching and trafficking of African elephant ivory and
rhino horn, threatening the long-term sustainability of these
species. These trends have contributed to growing
international concern about the problem and a desire by
some in Congress to reexamine existing approaches to
combating wildlife crime.
African Elephants. African elephant populations range
across 35 to 38 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with most
known populations located in Southern and East Africa
(home to 55% and 28% of the continent’s elephants,
respectively). Global levels of poaching and illegal trade in
ivory increased in the mid-2000s and peaked in 2010-2012,
when an estimated 100,000 elephants were reportedly killed
over a three year period. This trend followed a reduction in
poaching in the 1990s, which was largely attributed to a
global ban on the international trade in ivory. Since 2012,
overall trends in elephant poaching levels have plateaued at
an unsustainably high level. In 2013, poaching claimed at
least 20,000 elephants, or two-thirds of total African
elephant deaths. The current African elephant population is
estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000 elephants,
down from 1.2 million in 1980.
Increasingly, however, East Africa has become a key source
and transit point for ivory. Three countries in East Africa—
Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—accounted for
approximately 80% of all large-scale (i.e., 500 kg or larger)
African seizures of ivory in 2013, indicating that these
countries are major transit points for ivory. In June 2015,
the Tanzanian government reported that its elephant
population dropped by more than 60% in just five years—
from 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 at the end of 2014. These
trends threaten the sustainability of regional and continentwide elephant populations as well as conservation gains
since the 1980s, when poachers killed as many as 100,000
elephants per year, according to conservationists.
Black and White Rhinoceros. According to the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a
public-private partnership, as of 2012 the black rhino
population stood at 5,055 and the white rhino population
totaled 20,405. Rhinoceros populations in Africa are largely
concentrated in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa,
and Zimbabwe. The highest level of rhino poaching is in
South Africa, which is home to roughly 80% of the African
rhino population. An estimated 1,215 rhinos were poached
in 2014, following a trend for South Africa that reflects a
dramatic increase in poaching since 2007 (see Figure 1).
The uptick in rhino poaching represents a major reversal of
trends in the 1990s; observers assert that poaching had
effectively been brought to a halt during that period, largely
as a result of anti-poaching initiatives led by South Africa.
In recent years, South Africa has intensified anti-poaching
efforts, potentially contributing to the anticipated decline in
rhinos poached in 2015.
Figure 1. Rhinos Poached in South Africa
Selected Elephant Poaching Incidents
Minkébé National Park (Gabon): The Gabonese government
reported in early 2013 that more than 11,000 elephants (about
two-thirds of the park’s population) had been killed since 2004.
Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe): Poachers poisoned
water wells with cyanide in mid-2013, killing potentially more
than 300 elephants. 48 more have been poisoned in 2015 in
Hwange and other parks in Zimbabwe.
Garamba National Park (Democratic Republic of
Congo): 68 elephants were killed over two months in early
2014. Many were reportedly killed from a helicopter.
Gourma (Mali): 57 desert elephants, representing 20% of the
remaining desert elephant population in Mali, were killed
between January–October 2015, according to U.N.
peacekeepers in Mali.
Source: CRS compilation of UN, CITES, and South African
Department of Environmental Affairs data.
*Note: 749 rhinos poached in 2015 as of August 27, 2015.
Recent significant declines in elephant population levels
have occurred in Central Africa, a region that suffers from
ongoing security challenges and limited law enforcement.
Wildlife Poaching in Africa: An Overview
Why does the poaching persist? Wildlife trafficking is largely
driven by the prospect of economic profit and a sense that the
risk of detection is likely low. A wide range of security,
governance, and environmental management challenges are
associated with protecting wildlife. Additionally, inconsistent
national and local laws relating to wildlife prohibitions can be
exploited by traffickers. Structural conditions of conflict,
corruption, poverty, demand, lack of public awareness, as well as
other environmental pressures can contribute to wildlife losses.
Who are the poachers? Profits from wildlife trafficking can
sustain non-state armed groups and criminal organizations that
undermine the rule of law and regional security. Poachers
reportedly include militias operating in Democratic Republic of
Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR);
Congolese, Ugandan, Sudanese, and Tanzanian militaries; and the
Sudanese Janjaweed and related gangs operating between Sudan,
Chad, CAR, and Niger. In September 2015, National Geographic
reported that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed
group active in Central Africa, is resupplying its forces, in part,
through elephant ivory sales. Observers have also debated the
possible role of the Somali terrorist organization Al Shabaab.
How much is the illegal wildlife trade worth? According to
estimates by conservation groups, a kilogram of raw ivory can be
worth as much as $2,100, while a kilogram of rhino horn can be
The primary international treaty that regulates wildlife trade
is the 1975 Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 181
states, including the United States, are parties to CITES.
Roughly 5,000 animal species and 29,000 plant species are
subject to permitting requirements under CITES, depending
on the extent to which they are at risk of extinction.
African elephants are generally prohibited from
international trade under CITES, with some exceptions. For
example, a limited number of elephants may be hunted for
the purposes of noncommercial export of personal sport
trophies in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and
Zimbabwe. Rhino species are subject to the strictest bans on
international trade, with the exception of white rhinos from
South Africa and Swaziland, for which limited trade in live
animals and the export of hunting trophies are permitted.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington,
D.C. in September 2015, China and the United States
jointly committed to “enact nearly complete bans on ivory
import and export” and to take “significant and timely steps
to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory,” according
to a White House Fact Sheet about the visit. In October
2015, U.S. officials announced that the Chinese ban on
commercially traded ivory could be in place within a year.
Selected U.S. Responses
In July 2013, President Barack Obama issued Executive
Order (E.O.) 13648 on combating wildlife trafficking. It
directed federal agencies to enhance efforts to address the
problem, established an interagency Task Force on Wildlife
Trafficking to address wildlife trafficking. In February
2014, the Obama Administration released a National
Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which
prioritized domestic and international responses to wildlife
trafficking related to law enforcement, demand reduction,
and cooperation. The Administration also released a plan
to implement the Strategy with 24 core objectives, several
involving steps specific to Africa. In July 2015, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed changes to
regulations in the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
concerning African elephants that would limit imports of
sport-hunted trophies and restrict the forms and amounts
of ivory that can be legally imported, exported, and traded
domestically. Several U.S. airlines have stopped
transporting selected African big game hunting trophies.
In December 2015, FWS announced the listing of two
subspecies of lion under the ESA: Panthera leo leo
(located in India and western and central Africa) and
Panthera leo melanochaita (located in eastern and
southern Africa). Concurrent with the final listing rule,
published in the Federal Register, FWS also issued a
Director’s Order to strengthen enforcement of wildlife
U.S. support for anti-wildlife trafficking efforts abroad
focuses on species range countries, including in Africa;
trafficking transit hubs; and countries with high demand.
U.S. agencies involved in such programs include the
Departments of State, Interior, Justice, and Defense, as
well as FWS and the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID). Efforts support international
conservation and biodiversity goals, including law
enforcement and prosecutorial activities. For FY2016,
Congress appropriated $80 million to combat wildlife
trafficking in State, Foreign Operations, and Related
Programs appropriations (Div. K, P.L. 114-113).
Congress has held hearings addressing wildlife trafficking
in Africa, and several poaching-related bills have been
introduced. Such bills in the 114th Congress include the
Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act of 2015 (S. 27); the
Targeted Use of Sanctions for Killing Elephants and
Rhinoceros Act of 2015 (H.R. 1945); the Eliminate,
Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act (S. 2385);
and the Global Anti-Poaching Act (H.R. 2494), which
passed the House in November 2015.
For more information, see CRS Report RL34395,
International Illegal Trade in Wildlife: Threats and U.S.
Policy, by Liana W. Rosen and Pervaze A. Sheikh; CRS In
Focus IF10274, Status of the African Lion and Sport
Hunting, by Pervaze A. Sheikh and Liana W. Rosen; and
CRS Report RL32751, The Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(CITES): Background and Issues, by Pervaze A. Sheikh and
M. Lynne Corn.
Liana W. Rosen, Specialist in International Crime and
Pervaze A. Sheikh, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Alexis Arieff, Specialist in African Affairs
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Specialist in African Affairs
Tomas F. Husted, Research Assistant
Wildlife Poaching in Africa: An Overview
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress.
Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of information that has
been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role. CRS Reports, as a work of the
United States Government, are not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Any CRS Report may be
reproduced and distributed in its entirety without permission from CRS. However, as a CRS Report may include
copyrighted images or material from a third party, you may need to obtain the permission of the copyright holder if you
wish to copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.
https://crsreports.congress.gov | IF10330 · VERSION 3 · UPDATED