Elephant poaching rates vary across Africa: 19 years of data from 64 sites suggest why

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. 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 all lose.

Data collection

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 programme 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.

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.

Source: The Conversation Media Group Ltd

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