Severin Hauenstein had a hunch. The biologist from Germany's University of Freiburg suspected that there was a link between the places where elephants in Tanzania were killed for their ivory and the visible presence of law enforcement.
He thought that the carcasses of poached elephants would generally cluster farther away from anti-poaching ranger posts. When he and his colleagues crunched the data for the once elephant-rich Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem, they were surprised to find no correlation at all.
But then they took a closer look. For most ranger stations, the pattern was consistent with their expectations. But for others, they found the opposite: Carcasses were found quite close to ranger posts. That led to a second hunch—that the rangers stationed at those posts were complicit in poaching.
Elephant losses in Ruaha-Rungwa, in south-central Tanzania, had been staggering. Authorities estimated that the population fell from more than 34,000 in 2009 to just 8,000 by 2014.
The findings led Hauenstein and his colleagues to the realization that poaching patterns can't always be understood at a continental scale, or even at a regional one. Instead, they thought that the likelihood that elephant poaching would occur in any given place might be related, at least in part, to local considerations. (Learn more about how under poaching pressure elephants are evolving to lose their tusks.)
That's why Hauenstein, together with collaborators from the University of York, in the U.K., and the United Nations Environment Programme, decided to compare annual poaching rates at 53 different sites in sub-Saharan Africa with information about local environmental, economic, social, and political factors. Their analysis appears today in the journal Nature Communications.
The researchers identified two variables that influence local poaching rates more than expected. One is poverty, as measured by infant mortality rate, derived from data provided by Columbia University's Centre for International Earth Science Information Network and the UN. The other is corruption, as measured by the NGO Transparency International.
"What was particularly interesting was that both poverty and corruption correlated more strongly with local levels of poaching than [did] the adequacy of law enforcement," Hauenstein says. Poaching levels were assessed by experts under a program called Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), which provides data to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife.
"To us, it looks like it isn't possible to just increase law enforcement more and more and solve the problem," Hauenstein says, although he’s quick to emphasize that this doesn’t mean law enforcement shouldn't remain a priority—"just that there are other things that need to be addressed." In other words, there are places where it may be prudent to focus more on alleviating poverty or reducing corruption.
While these findings may seem self-evident, efforts to reduce poaching largely remain focused on law enforcement, Hauenstein says.
In rural Africa, many strategies and projects exist to alleviate poverty, but community development projects can sometimes subvert conservation goals, says George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University biologist. Wittemyer is also a member of the African Elephants Specialist Group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the body that sets the conservation status of species, and serves as the scientific chair for the NGO Save the Elephants.
"If you put in water, or education, or health services right next to wilderness areas, that inevitably leads to pressure on that wilderness area," he explains. And if you build capacity in agriculture or livestock husbandry, then what was once wildlife habitat could be converted for other uses, simultaneously increasing the risk of destructive and potentially deadly encounters between people and wild animals.
Establishing tourism-related infrastructure is often suggested as an economic engine that could benefit wildlife as well as people, both through photographic safaris and through tightly managed big-game hunting. Hauenstein says it isn’t clear that money flowing in from these ventures always helps the people otherwise most tempted to resort to poaching.
But there are places where this model seems effective. In Namibia, the 23-year-old Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program—which transferred rights over natural resources, including wildlife, to local communities and established their legal rights to develop tourism and hunting operations—is often characterized as beneficial for wildlife as well as people.
Elephant researchers reporting to CITES have found that average mortality levels owing to poaching across all 53 sites fell from a peak of 10 percent in 2011 to less than 4 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the IUCN reports that African elephant numbers are increasing. (Of the threats facing elephants, habitat loss and fragmentation, and consequent human-elephant conflicts, still tops the list.)
Hauenstein says both trends seem to reflect the better condition of savanna elephants in eastern and southern Africa but that poaching risk remains high for forest elephants, found in western and central Africa. And to the extent that reductions in poaching are connected to the recent economic slowdown in China, that pattern could quite easily reverse itself, he says. "The crisis is not over."
The future of African elephants is inextricably linked to the well-being of the continent’s rural people. They often must suffer the costs of living with large, dangerous animals without deriving much if any benefit from that coexistence. Perhaps solving the elephant crisis means treating it as an issue of human rights and social justice, says Maxi Louis, director of the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations, rather than solely one of wildlife conservation.
Jason G. Goldman, an award-winning science journalist based in Los Angeles, covers wildlife, ecology, and conservation for National Geographic, Scientific American, BioGraphic, The Journal of Alta California, and other publications. His most recent book is Wild L.A.: Explore the Amazing Nature In and Around Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.