Is an elephant killed in the time it takes you to down that cup of coffee?

The estimate that an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its ivory is derived from a reputable academic study, but the International Fund for Animal Welfare oversimplified the complexities of that research to score a good soundbite.

By the time you drink your coffee, an elephant is killed for its ivory tusks, according to an image shared by actress Minka Kelly.

Kelly (Friday Night Lights) posted the statistic by the International Fund for Animal Welfare on her Instagram account, along with a note urging her followers to sign IFAW’s petition asking wildlife authorities to list African elephants as endangered and give the species more protections.

“#Elephants are being killed at an alarming rate, both by #ivory poachers and by wealthy American trophy #hunters,” Kelly wrote on 10 May. “It’s estimated that on average, an #elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its ivory. That’s 96 animals a day!”

Is it true that elephants are killed at the rate it takes to down a cup of coffee?

The estimate is derived from a reputable academic study, but IFAW is oversimplifying the complexities of that research to score a good soundbite.

Calculation ‘plausible’

US actress Minka Kelly posted this picture on her Instagram account.
US actress Minka Kelly posted this picture on her Instagram account.

IFAW’s director for US campaigns, Beth Allgood, told us the 96 elephants figure comes from a 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study that provided the first reliable continent-wide estimate of illegal kills.

The researchers used data at carcass-monitoring field sites maintained by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to model the Africa-wide number of illegal elephant deaths.

The study determined the percentage of elephants estimated to be killed by poaching. It then took that percentage and applied it to current estimates of the total number of African elephant species total.

The study used two different approaches to calculate the total number of African elephants killed over three years — reaching 99,997 in one version and 101,784 in the other. (For context, the entire species had an estimated population size of 420,000 to 650,000 in 2012.)

Averaged over three years, that’s an annual rate of 33,630 elephants, researchers said. That’s a daily rate of 92 elephants (not 96) or the equivalent of one elephant illegally poached every 15 to 16 minutes.

We spoke to the lead author of the study, George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, about his findings and the IFAW claim.

Wittemyer said the IFAW calculation was “plausible” but he also said that “confidence intervals around the numbers are a bit wide”.

In other words, IFAW is taking a fairly shaky estimate and describing it as a certainty.

The better take-away from the paper is the order of magnitude (tens of thousands of elephants killed per year), rather than exact figures, said Julian Blanc, the data analyst for CITES’ elephant monitoring program.

“I therefore cannot vouch for the ‘96 elephants a day’ figure,” Blanc told us.

Unscientific Twitter poll to gauge caffeination speeds

Whether that translates to one elephant “by the time you drink your coffee” depends on if you sip or chug. Yes, we understand the line is a rhetorical flourish, but hey, we’re fact-checkers so we conducted an unscientific Twitter poll to gauge caffeination speeds.

Out of nearly 2,200 respondents, a third said it takes them 15 minutes to finish their java. For these coffee drinkers, that does correspond to one elephant poached by the time they’re done. But for a third of respondents who drink faster, the claim doesn’t hold up.  And for the other third who were more indolent, the claim actually lowballs the amount of elephant deaths.

Poaching may be on the decline

Various wildlife groups list demand for ivory as one of, if not the, main reason for the decimation of African elephants.

But recent reports suggest poaching may be on the decline, which may push this coffee factoid further from reality.

When Europeans began colonizing Africa in the 1800s, there were an estimated 26 million elephants before the world gained an appetite for their tusks. Americans consumed 200 tons of ivory — used to make combs, art, pool balls and piano keys — per year in the early part of the 20th century and the elephant population had declined to an estimated 10 million.

According to the first comprehensive survey of the species conducted by zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the population had dwindled to 1.3 million in 1979 and fell to 600,000 within a decade.

This poaching crisis, said Allgood of the IFAW, led CITES to ban the international ivory trade in 1989. Then the overall elephant population rebounded from just 286,000 in 1995 to 472,000 in 2007 before a resurgence of the crisis.

According to a CITES report, illegal ivory trade activity and the weight of the ivory more than doubled since 2007 as a result of rising demand from growing Asian economies. The area hardest hit has been Central African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, where illegal sales help fund war and terrorism.

Today, the outlook looks slightly brighter for elephants as killings have declined since the peak in 2011, CITES reports.

That’s important to note for two reasons. First, the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences study cited by IFAW includes the peak year of 2011. Second, a decline in more recent years would knock down the total number of elephants poached.

Furthermore, China, the world’s biggest ivory consumer, and the United States agreed to enact a complete ban on ivory in the fall of 2015.

Conclusion: IFAW boiled down complex research

Kelly said: “By the time you drink your coffee, an elephant is killed for its ivory tusks.”

The group behind this claim, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is trying to draw attention to a real problem by boiling down complex research into a simple-to-use factoid.

But they are testing the limits of the research they’re citing.

The study measured three years and estimated that about 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers in that time period.

Experts caution against taking those figures — which rely on estimates — and boiling them down in the way IFAW did. And since that study concluded, other research suggests that poaching has declined.

And, it should be obvious, but this only really matters if you take 15 minutes to drink a cup of coffee.

Politifact rated the claim “half true” as it is partially accurate but leaves out important details. See how it appeared there.

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