Ethe same day, thousands of rangers patrol national parks and other protected areas in Africa. Their work is fraught with danger, both from hostile humans armed with automatic weapons and from the ungrateful and potentially aggressive wildlife, armed with tusks, teeth and claws, that they help preserve. But their work is important, not least because the data they collect is crucial for conservation planning.
This is particularly true of data on poaching, which remains, in both senses of the word, an elephantine problem. Since 2006, African elephant populations have declined by approximately 30%. In 2021, according to Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (Mike), a conservation program, around 40% of elephant deaths were due to poaching.
The severity of elephant poaching varies from place to place. The Mike data shows a welcome decline in rates throughout the 2010s, but according to a 2020 study by Scott Schlossberg of Elephants Without Borders, a charity, this can be entirely attributed to a decline in East Africa.
Elsewhere there is a wide variation in the pressure on pachyderms. Some parks, such as Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ground floor), are hard hit: more than 90% of carcasses found by rangers are victims of poachers. In others, such as Chobe, Botswana, less than 10% of dead elephants discovered were illegally killed.
To untangle the factors influencing poaching, Timothy Kuiper of the University of Cape Town, Eleanor Milner-Gulland of Oxford and a team of collaborators analyzed the data collected to Mike by rangers from 64 sites in 30 African countries over the course of 19 years. They correlated them with potentially relevant factors, both natural and human, and published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Natural variables such as habitat type, they found, made little difference. Humans predominate. Unsurprisingly, but nonetheless relevantly, low household wealth, poor health, poor law enforcement and poor national governance have all contributed to higher poaching rates. The price of ivory too.
There was, however, an unexpected result: the impact of the armed conflict. Because there didn’t seem to be many. What impact there was, was a consequence of a few special cases in ground floorCentral African Republic and Ethiopia, rather than a general rule about misbehaving young gunmen.
An unquantifiable, and therefore untestable, factor, according to Dr Kuiper, was the local political will to preserve wildlife. But this study nonetheless confirms observations made elsewhere that the best form of conservation is a thriving population.■