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Great News: African elephant poaching rates are falling!

By Steve Williams From Care2

Over the past six years African elephant poaching has fallen by half, giving conservationists a reason to be optimistic.

This news come from a new study appearing in the journal “Nature Communications“. The research team, which brings together scientists from the University of York, University of Freiburg and experts from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, looked at data from over 50 protected sites that collectively span 29 countries where African elephants live. They analyzed trends from 2002 to 2017.

The researchers found that the number of elephants who poachers killed has fallen quite sharply, going from around 10 percent of African elephant numbers in 2011 down to four percent by 2017. To be clear, even just one elephant dying as a result of poaching is one animal too many, but this trend is encouraging.

The study was able to link elephant mortality related to poaching to local political corruption and lax enforcement. The less transparent the political system in a given region, the more likely it was that poachers might kill the area’s elephants. This makes intuitive sense, but it underscores how creating political stability and a healthy democratic system can support animal conservation.


There seem to be a few reasons. One is that conservation efforts that work with local wildlife wardens — and in some areas turn former poachers into animal guardians — have shown significant success. The approach of empowering local people to find both economic and personal enrichment in keeping Africa’s elephants alive has been a major conservation success.

The other major driving factor appears to be that China’s market for ivory has nosedived. China isn’t the only place where the ivory trade has historically survived and even thrived, but because of China’s size it has a large influence on the demand for ivory.

In 2017 China introduced a ban on new ivory sales, and that appears to have had a direct impact African elephant poaching. However, the study does raise a note of caution: China may well have banned the sale of ivory, but that doesn’t mean that all interest in ivory has gone away. People keen to get their hands on ivory may now turn to other markets, meaning that this dip in poaching may be temporary and needs to be monitored closely to ensure we don’t see a reverse of this trend.


A downturn in elephant poaching is a significant win but, the researchers say, African elephants are not yet out of danger. They point out that tackling poaching head-on must obviously remain a key strategy, and they also believe that gains in conservation can be made by applying our attention to other areas, too.

“The effect of alleviating poverty and reducing corruption at the site-level might be other (potentially more effective) approaches, that should be promoted more,” researcher Severin Hauenstein told CNN.

African elephants were once plentiful across Africa, with herds hundreds strong roaming its planes and a total population somewhere between three to four million. Poaching has reduced those numbers dramatically. A wave of poaching in the 1980s, for example, killed 100,000 elephants per year.

International governments moved to act, and, for a time, African elephant numbers began to bounce back. Then around 15 years ago, another wave of poaching hit, leading to more than 100,000 elephant deaths up to 2015. Driven by several factors, including regional political unrest and global markets like China’s thirsting for ivory, African elephants’ numbers once again plummeted.

Today, the population is considered vulnerable but it is being restored. There are somewhere around 415,000 animals, according to the WWF. That’s a far cry from the millions that once roamed Africa, but it is starting to look healthy enough to say that African elephants have a solid chance of survival — so long as we keep up our conservation efforts.

One of the key things we can do is expand the protected zones where African elephants can thrive as, at the moment, only a fifth of the elephants’ habitat is protected. By ring-fencing more of that vital space, we would give them a sanctuary that we can monitor and safeguard. We owe the African elephants that much, at least.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

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