Africa's elephant poaching rates drop 60% in six years, study finds

‘This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the crisis,’ says Dr Severin Hauenstein

Elephants find refuge on Botswana's plains

African elephant poaching rates have dropped by 60 per cent in six years, an international study has found.

It is thought the decline could be associated with the ivory trade ban introduced in China in 2017.

Annual poaching mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 10 per cent in 2011 to less than 4 per cent in 2017, according to the paper published in Nature Communications journal.

“As long as demand continues to fall, poaching rates will decline,” lead researcher Dr Colin Beale from the University of York told The Independent. “The trend is going in the right direction.”

However, the broader picture remains bleak.

An estimated 350,000 elephants are left on the continent but up to 15,000 are killed each year by poachers. If current rates continue, the population will still be virtually wiped out in the next few decades, surviving only in small, heavily protected pockets.

“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,” said Dr Beale. “The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in southeast Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”

He added: “We need to reduce demand in Asia and improve the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa; these are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants.”

In the early 2000s, African elephant poaching was even worse, with populations falling by 30 per cent in just seven years. Researchers do not yet have data for 2018 or 2019.

More action needs to be taken to tackle poverty and reduce corruption, thereby lowering the demand for ivory.

“Elephants are the very definition of charismatic megafauna, but they are also important engineers of African savannah and forest ecosystems and play a vital role in attracting ecotourism, so their conservation is a real concern,” said Dr Beale.

Scientists looked at data from the Mike (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme, which records carcass data provided by park rangers at 53 protected sites across sub-Saharan Africa.

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International interventions to stop the ivory trade are not always effective and environmentalists believe stronger laws and enforcement efforts need to be made.

Lisa Rolls Hagelberg of UN Environment said: “For long-term success, governments need to prioritise 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.”

Severin Hauenstein, from the University of Freiburg, said: “This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the poaching crisis. After some changes in the political environment, the total number of illegally killed elephants in Africa seems to be falling, but to assess possible protection measures, we need to understand the local and global processes driving illegal elephant hunting.”

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