According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Africa lost more than 100,000 elephants between 2006 and 2015, the worst poaching surge since the 1980s.
But over the past six years, African elephant poaching has fallen by half. This news came from a research team, which brings together scientists from the University of York, University of Freiburg and experts from CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), looked at data from over 50 protected sites that collectively spans 29 countries where African elephants live, their analysis reveals a recent decline in annual poaching mortality rate from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to <4% in 2017.
To be clear, even just one elephant dying as a result of poaching is one animal too many, but this trend is encouraging. Based on those findings, the research 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.
Researcher Severin Hauenstein said : “The effect of alleviating poverty and reducing corruption at the site-level might be other (potentially more effective) approaches, that should be promoted more,”
According to the study, reduced ivory demand, specifically from Chinese markets – the biggest driver behind poaching in Africa, which appeared last month in the journal Nature Communications.
The research team say it is impossible to say if the ivory trade ban introduced in China 2017 is having an impact on the figures as ivory prices started to fall before the ban and may reflect a wider downturn in the Chinese economy. 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. One of the authors of the study, Dr Colin Beale, from the University of York’s Department of Biology said: “We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining. The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South- East Asia, and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”
A century ago, there were about ten million African elephants and 100,000 Asian elephants (the two primary species), reports World Wildlife Magazine. Those numbers have plummeted in the last century, right now there are approximately 500,000 elephants left in the world (if forest elephants are included). 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.
Lisa Rolls Hagelberg, Head of Wildlife Communication & Ambassador Relations, UN Environment, said: “Ensuring a future with wild elephants, and myriad other species, will require stronger laws and enforcement efforts and genuine community engagement; however, as long as demand exists, supply will find a way to quench it.
“Only about 6% of the current funding going towards tackling illegal trade in wildlife is directed to communication.
For long-term success, governments need to prioritize comprehensive social and behavioural change interventions to both prevent and reduce demand. We have the know how, now we need to invest to truly influence environmental consciousness.”