African Elephant Poaching Is Down, But Other Obstacles Still Stand In The Way For Recovery


Elephant feet displayed at the animal sanctuary after poachers had killed the elephants in Mozambique, August 2011. Katiekk/Shutterstock

Since peaking almost a decade ago, the poaching of African elephants across the continent has seen a steady decline due to collaborative conservation efforts. However, a new study suggests that across the continent, elephant populations are still threatened by poverty, corruption, and continued demand for ivory.

A new analysis published in Nature Communications finds that between 10,000 and 15,000 of the estimated 350,000 elephants in Africa today are killed each year by poachers, but the impacts aren’t uniform across the continent. According to data compiled by the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), annual poaching mortality has declined from a peak of 10 percent in 2011 to less than 4 percent in 2017. Some elephant populations are stable or even increasing, while those in areas that have higher rates of poverty or corruption are seeing a continuation of illegal poaching efforts. In some areas, researchers see a decline in elephant populations by as much as one-third in seven years, which they in part attribute to a steady demand for ivory in China and Southeast Asia.


“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 study author Dr Colin Beale, from the University of York, in a statement. “The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South- East Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”

Annual poaching trend by site. Map of MIKE sites in Africa, showing estimated elephant population sizes. Nature Communications

The team combed through data from the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program, which tracks carcass data provided by park rangers at more than 50 different conservation sites across the continent. These kill rates not only correlated with demand in Asian markets, but more carcasses were cataloged in areas with corruption and poverty.

“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,” said Beale. “While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem.”

Elephants are the “engineers of African savannah” and play a vital role in both local forest ecosystems and ecotourism. Investing in law enforcement to further reduce poaching will only be successful if policymakers also tackle international demand for ivory, as well as local corruption and poverty, say the researchers.


“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,” said study co-author Severin Hauenstein. 

African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Atilla JANDI/Shutterstock

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