Elephant poaching rates vary across Africa: 19 years of data from 64 sites
Timothy Kuiper and Eleanor Jane Milner-Gulland, The Conversation via
January 11, 2023
It's a grim and all too common sight for rangers at some of Africa's nature
reserves: the bullet-riddled carcass of an elephant, its tusks removed by
poachers. African elephant populations have fallen by about 30% since 2006.
Poaching has driven the decline.
Some reserves, like Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Selous
in Tanzania, have lost hundreds of elephants to poachers over the last
decade. But others, like Etosha National Park in Namibia, have been
targeted far less. What might explain this difference?
That's what we set out to explore in our new paper, now published in
Proceedings of the Royal Society B. We investigated why poaching rates vary
so widely across Africa and what this might reveal about what drives,
motivates and facilitates poaching. To do this, we used a statistical model
to relate poaching levels from 64 African sites to various socio-economic
factors. These included a country's quality of governance and the level of
human development in the area surrounding a park.
Our findings suggest that poaching rates are lower where there is strong
national governance and where local levels of human development—especially
wealth and health—are relatively high. Strong site-level law enforcement
and reduced global ivory prices also keep poaching levels down.
Understanding these dynamics is crucial. The illegal wildlife trade is one
of the highest value illicit trade sectors globally, worth several billion
dollars each year. It poses a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems,
which are the bedrock of human well-being. And elephants are more than just
a culturally significant icon. They are "ecosystem engineers" that can
boost forest carbon stocks and diversify habitats through their feeding.
Their presence in national parks and reserves also has economic benefits,
bringing in valuable tourism revenues.
The deaths of both poachers and rangers in the continent's violent
biodiversity "war" also underscores our findings: when elephants lose, we
We developed a statistical model using 19 years of data on 10,286 poached
elephants at 64 sites in 30 African countries. These data were collected,
mostly by wildlife rangers, as part of the global program for Monitoring
the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), administered by the Convention on
the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
We then linked the poaching data to key socio-economic data related to
areas around the parks, individual countries and global markets.
Poaching of high-value species like elephants and rhinos is driven
primarily by sophisticated criminal syndicates. So we used criminology
theory and evidence from the scientific literature to generate hypotheses
about factors that might drive, facilitate or motivate the decisions of
these syndicates and the local hunters they recruited. We then identified
datasets representing these factors, such as the Uppsala Armed Conflict
Dataset and the Global Data Lab's Subnational Human Development index.
Our tailored statistical model allows us to test for the effect of one
hypothesized driver of poaching while accounting for the others. It also
means we can look at local, national, regional and global factors together.
Parks with higher levels of human development (based on health and wealth
metrics from household surveys) and stronger law enforcement suffered less
poaching. Poaching was also lower in countries where there was strong
national governance quality. We measured this using the World Bank's
Socio-economic and political drivers were far more common than ecological
ones. A park's accessibility and size, the density of its vegetation and
its elephant population did not affect its poaching levels.
The strong associations we found between poaching and factors like
corruption and human development do not necessarily imply that these
factors directly cause poaching. Correlation does not imply causation.
Deeper research at particular sites will reveal what underlying processes
are at play, and offer a better understanding of cause and effect.
But we do have some suggestions about what might lie behind the
associations we found. These are rooted in previous studies.
Solutions Transcend Biodiversity
Why, for instance, would higher levels of local human well-being in an area
be associated with lower poaching?
One explanation could be that, in areas of economic deprivation and in the
absence of alternatives, local residents might participate in poaching to
meet their basic needs or earn extra income.
Another interpretation might be that criminal ivory syndicates seeking to
recruit local hunters target areas of lower human well-being because they
can operate more effectively there.
A number of biodiversity conservation actors, like government wildlife
departments or environmental NGOs, have already recognized the value in
focusing on improving human well-being around parks and reserves. A stellar
example is Namibia's conservancy model. It achieves effective conservation
through local communities governing and benefiting from wildlife.
Our study highlights that site-based conservation action alone cannot
control illegal killing. A lot of what drives and facilitates elephant
poaching is beyond conservationists' remit or control.
Conservationists can't be expected to solve local human development issues
or hold governments accountable on their own. Wider societal action to
address poverty is required. This could include empowering women,
increasing access to basic education, and promoting resilience to climate
change. Such action is valuable in its own right, but will likely deliver
benefits for elephants too.
Finally, the positive relationship that we found between poaching and ivory
prices suggests that tackling demand for illegal wildlife in end-markets is
a key part of the puzzle.
We suggest that tackling elephant poaching, and indeed the broader illegal
wildlife trade, requires dealing with the wider systemic challenges of
human development, corruption and consumer demand. It is not enough to just
focus on actions traditionally defined as "wildlife conservation".