An environmental organization has notified the U.S. Department of Interior that it is prepared to sue in 60 days if the Obama administration does not classify two African elephant species as endangered.
The announcement by the Center for Biological Diversity comes about five months after expiration of a deadline set by the Endangered Species Act for a decision on a petition that sought the listing.
“If the current rate of poaching persists, savanna elephants could be extinct in roughly two decades and forest elephants long before that,” Tanya Sanerib, an attorney for the organization, said. “Only by recognizing the true, endangered status of the two species of African elephants can we highlight and address elephants’ plight and threats.”
The June 2015 petition also asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to formally classify elephants native to Africa into two species: those that are native to equatorial forests (Loxodonta cyclotis) and those that are indigenous to the continent’s vast grasslands (L. africana).
All African elephants are at risk of extinction. According to the Great Elephant Census, a recent effort to estimate the number of the giant mammals now living in the wild on the bulk of the continent, there are less than 400,000 individuals left.
Savannah elephants are being killed so fast by poachers seeking the ivory of their tusks that they could disappear in 15 years. A recent scientific paper that examined the reproductive rate of forest elephants concluded that they, too, face a precarious future:
“The forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis of Central Africa face the threat of extinction, with recent analysis of census data across their range showing a 62% decrease in their numbers for the period of 2002–2011 coupled with a loss of 30% of their geographical range (Maisels et al. 2013). Modelling of Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) data corroborates this, indicating that forest elephants are experiencing the greatest levels of poaching in Africa with potentially as much as 10–18% of the population killed per year (Wittemyer et al. 2014).
Section 4(b)(3) of the ESA forces FWS (or, in the case of marine organisms, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) to decide, within 90 days, whether a petition for listing is supported by “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.”
The agency then has 12 months to decide whether to add the species to the list of threatened and endangered species.
FWS decided in Feb. 2016 that the CBD petition did meet the scientific prerequisite of ESA section 3. However, the administration has not yet acted on the merits of the petition. One explanation for FWS’s handling of it may be that a decision whether to “uplist” African elephants from threatened to endangered status is not included in the current agency workplan.
Sanerib expressed a belief that the Obama administration has mostly been focused on establishing regulations, called 4d rules after the section of the ESA that authorizes them, to govern trade in elephant ivory and so has not yet prioritized the listing petition.
“I’m not sure that it was necessarily an intentional step by the administration,” she said.
The 4d rule for African elephants, which was finalized on June 6, does largely prohibit the import of ivory into the United States. However, the regulation is not airtight. So-called “de minimis” quantities of ivory are not covered; neither are quantities of ivory that are more than 100 years old, ivory used in certain musical instruments or that is part of some “traveling exhibitions,” law enforcement, or scientific research.
“The U.S. and China have committed to these near-bans on ivory in our domestic markets,” Sanerib explained.
If the African elephant species are listed as endangered, those bans would become far more rigid. Under section 9 of the ESA, essentially all import, export, sale, or transportation of an African elephant, or of its body parts, would be illegal in the United States.
About 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010-2012. The number of elephants in Africa has declined from an estimated three to five million at the end of the nineteenth century.
Sanerib said that she is not sure whether any litigation that aims to force FWS to make a decision about whether to recognize two species of African elephant and grant both endangered status will be filed before the end of the Obama administration.
“Given the need to send notice letters by certified mail, I think it’s incredibly likely that we will be dealing with the Trump administration on this,” she said.
UPDATE, Nov. 18, 2016, 10:48 pm MST: The discussion of the section of the Endangered Species Act provision relating to FWS’ obligations when presented with a petition to list a species was corrected. The author had inaccurately cited the section number of the statute and erred in stating that FWS has 30 days to evaluate a petition.