Visiting Africa as a tourist could be the best way to fight poachers

African elephants, one of the world's most iconic animals, could go extinct in the wild within the next decade, a major conservation conference in Botswana has been told. The best way to stop it is for as many people as possible to go on safari, the tourist trade providing money to fund protection. In other words, pack your khaki and get out there.

New figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature show that the African elephant population fell from 550,000 to 470,000 between 2006 and 2013 - meaning at least 80,000 have been poached. The new statistics were delivered at the Africa Elephant Summit, attended by delegates from around 20 countries, including China, which is accused of fuelling the poaching trade for traditional medicine and other ivory products. 

The situation is at its worst in east Africa, where numbers have fallen from 150,000 to 100,000 during the same seven year period. Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve was recently added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites under threat, as up to 66% of the reserve's population of elephants - as many as 25,000 animals - were killed between 2009 and 2013.

"This species could be extinct in our lifetime, within one or two decades, if the current trend continues," said Dune Ives, senior researcher at Vulcan, a philanthropic organisation run by US billionaire Paul Allen. "In five years we may have lost the opportunity to save this magnificent and iconic animal." 

This news arrives in the same week as Prince Harry's announcement that upon leaving the army in June he'll be travelling to Africa to work on a conservation project, following in the footsteps of his father and brother who are already public advocates for wildlife protection.

There is some debate over quite how dire the situation in Africa is, with elephant populations in southern Africa proving healthier than elsewhere. Some experts state that if poaching continues at current rates it could see these numbers halved, but not the species eradication posited by some. 

What most experts agree upon is that tourism has a hugely important role to play in defeating the poachers. The money provided by visitors going on safari in the area delivers the funds necessary to continue the conservation effort. 

Kenyan wildlife expert Jonathan Scott said: "The bottom line is this: if we abandon tourism, we abandon conservation. When people ask me, 'How can we help?' we say: 'By taking a safari.' Wildlife-based tourism is not a choice but a necessity. It pays the bills that keep the game parks and their wildlife secure. Without the tourist dollars you might as well hand over all the remaining wildlife to the poachers."

So the best way you can stop African elephants from going extinct is to go on safari. It's a hard job, but someone has to do it.