Elephant poaching in Africa has dropped significantly from a peak in 2011, according to a new analysis of annual surveillance data. The progress seems to have resulted in large part from declining demand for ivory in China, which has banned the trade, and government action in some African countries. But even with the “vast improvements,” the problem isn’t solved yet, says ecologist George Wittemyer of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who was not involved in the study. “The pressure is still high, and the species is under threat.”
The illegal killing of elephants in sub-Saharan Africa began to rise in 2005. Many scientists suspected the rise was due to growing demand for ivory in China, where carved ivory has long been treasured and a growing middle class was flush with cash. It developed into a “huge poaching problem,” says Colin Beale, an ecologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. By 2014, the continental population of savanna elephants had dropped by almost a third to an estimated 352,000. To figure out which elephants were killed by poachers—and which died of natural causes—rangers working with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora examined carcasses found at 53 sites in parks across the continent. Their annual reports cover about half the African elephant population.
Beale and colleagues took these raw data from 2002 to 2017 and, after adjusting for various biases, found that illegal killing peaked in 2011, when 10% of all elephants fell victim to poaching. That number has now fallen to about 4%, they report today in Nature Communications. Wittemyer calls the study “a pretty sophisticated analysis.”
To figure out the reason for the decline, Beale and his colleagues turned to the ivory trade, looking at its price as a proxy for demand. Because selling elephant ivory is illegal, price data aren’t publicly available; instead, the researchers analyzed the cost of ivory from an extinct relative, the mammoth, which is legal to trade. The poaching rate closely followed the ups and downs in those prices, they found. In the major Chinese markets, mammoth ivory—which sells for far less than elephant ivory—ranged from $22 per kilogram wholesale in 2002 to more than $90 in 2011.
Many conservation groups credit the Chinese government’s 2017 ban on the ivory trade—and its 2016 announcement—for the decline in elephant poaching. Celebrity ads in which actor Jackie Chan and basketball star Yao Ming condemned the ivory business may have helped as well. But Beale isn’t convinced that cultural tastes have completely changed; he thinks the fall-off may be because of a slowdown in economic growth. If China’s economy catches fire again, demand for ivory might also increase, he worries. “It’s too early to be complacent,” he says.
In addition to ivory prices, the researchers found three other factors that seemed to affect poaching rates. From most to least influential, they are: the amount of corruption in a country, the poverty rate in villages near elephant populations, and the adequacy of law enforcement, as reported by rangers in the wildlife parks. To Beale, those factors suggest fighting poverty may be a better way to protect elephants than shoring up law enforcement.
But he cautions against any cuts to such enforcement. As Wittemyer notes, much of the progress in reducing poaching, especially in East Africa, was thanks to Tanzania and other East African countries improving protection. “That’s been the biggest shift we’ve seen on the continent,” Wittemyer says. “It’s a big improvement.”
It’s not clear whether elephant populations can survive in the long run with the current, lower level of poaching. Beale and his Ph.D. student Severin Hauenstein are planning to study that question. Wittemyer suspects a significant threat persists. “We’re not out of the risk zone yet.”