Elephant poaching rates have dropped in Africa, researchers say, but even at current rates the elephants risk being erased from the continent if more is not done to address the drivers of ivory demand: price, poverty and corruption.
More enforcement isn’t the only answer, according to the work of a team led by Severin Hauenstein, of the University of Freiburg in Germany and the University of York in the UK, published in Nature Communications on Monday. Two of the authors are from the United Nations Environment Program, who work with the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program through CITES, the international convention on endangered species trade.
The research was based on the number of elephant carcasses recorded at 53 monitoring sites across Africa as part of the MIKE program.
The authors found that poaching mortality rates for elephants dropped to 4 percent in 2017, down from an estimated peak of more than 10 percent in 2011. There are still some 350,000 elephants remaining in Africa, but between 10,000 and 15,000 are illegally hunted by poachers each year, and the loss of mature elephants makes it difficult for the herd population growth rates to absorb the poaching impact.
More important is the why behind the numbers. “We suggest that continued investment in law enforcement could further reduce poaching, but is unlikely to succeed without action that simultaneously reduces ivory demand and tackles corruption and poverty,” the authors concluded.
Among them is Dr. Colin Beale of University of York, who underscored the need to reduce demand in Southeast Asia – which continues despite China’s 2017 ivory trade ban – and poverty on the continent.
“These are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants,” Beale said. “While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem.”
The Chinese ban hasn’t slowed illegal trade in other Asian nations such as Thailand and Vietnam, and some interventions may even drive ivory prices higher, adding an incentive to illegal wildlife trafficking.
“Endemic corruption and limited capacity in many source countries means that, even if arrests are made in the field, prosecutions may fail or enforcement focuses only on the lowest tier of individuals involved in the trade: effective law enforcement may only be possible if corruption levels are low and enforcement capacity high,” the authors added.
Africa, with its nations in increasingly close relationships with China, is seeing the gap between the resource and the market made smaller by geopolitics, but the reasons for elephant poaching in Africa are complex and there is no one size-fits all solution for the illegal ivory trade across the continent.
Still, there are consistencies when it comes to the livelihoods of communities living with elephants, and some evidence that community-based conservation programs are part of the solution.
Tackling poverty and corruption may have greater impact and are as necessary as continued investment in enforcement – and Hauenstein warns that the reduction in poaching mortality rates does not mean an end to the crisis for African elephants and those working to protect them.