Elephant poaching in Africa may have peaked. A report in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications and reprinted in the May, issue of Science magazine, extrapolated from a survey by ecologists at the University of York (UK), suggests that ivory poaching has dwindled in recent years. Poaching peaked in 2011, when an estimated 10% of all elephants in sub-Saharan Africa fell victim to illegal hunting. Poaching had been on the increase since 2005, when a growing middle class in China flush with cash fuelled the demand for ivory, long treasured for carvings. By 2014, elephant populations across Africa had crashed by roughly a third from the turn of the century, to an estimated population of 350,000 animals.
The annual survey, conducted under the auspices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), examined elephant carcasses at some 50 sites in parks and game reserves across Africa, to determine which elephants were killed by poachers and which died of natural causes. The survey is key because it’s believed to cover roughly half of the continent’s elephant population. Data collected annually over a 16-year period, from 2002 to 2018, shows that poaching is down two-thirds from 2011’s peak. While still not ideal — field biologists caution that the problem is not solved yet, despite declining demand from China — it hints at a brighter future
for hunted elephants. The major problems facing elephants today are climate change, dwindling food and water resources, and increasing human-wildlife conflict in areas where elephants invade agricultural land set aside for subsistence farms.
Demand from China has declined in part because of that country’s 2017 ban on ivory imports, and because of China’s slowing economy. A celebrity conservation ad campaign fronted by actor Jackie Chan and basketball star Yao Ming proved effective, too.
York ecologist Colin Beale, a lead author of the study, cautions that elephants aren’t out of the woods yet, however. “It’s too early to be complacent,” Beale told Science magazine. If China’s economy heats up again, elephants may once again find themselves in the firing line.
The problems facing elephants aren’t limited to the question of supply and demand, as the recent lifting of the hunting ban in Botswana shows. Botswana is home to Africa’s largest surviving population of elephants, but too many elephants can result in habitat destruction for all animals. Poaching is also driven by poverty, government corruption and lax enforcement of existing laws.
The situation looks more promising than it did a few years ago, but the world’s largest land mammal isn’t out of the risk zone yet.