Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-profit conservation outfit, completed the Great Elephant Census in 2016 after three long years. A huge pan-African endeavor by scientists and researchers from all over the globe, and featuring aerial surveys and rigorous data collection, it managed to build up a solid picture of the state of the continent’s Loxodonta africana population.
This undertaking meant that EWB and its partners have a better grasp on the situation on the ground than almost anywhere else. That’s why when they say the latest poaching incident is one of the most serious they’ve ever seen, we should sit up and take notice.
Most of the 87 slaughtered elephants were killed just a few weeks back, all in order to harvest their ivory. They were found dead near the famed Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, the country with the highest numbers of African elephants on record.
“I'm shocked, I'm completely astounded,” Dr Mike Chase, the director and founder of EWB, told BBC News.
The numbers of poached elephants in recent times across the continent appear to have doubled since 2015, when the Great Elephant Census was first conducted. Already, by this point, a third of Africa’s elephants had been needlessly killed in the last 10 years.
Until recently, Botswana had a far better record when it came to protecting its elephants from poachers than many nearby nations. After some cross-border poaching via Namibia in the 1990s, the army was called in to protect the wildlife. The then-head of the Botswana Defense Force (BDF), Ian Khama, eventually became the country’s president and set up the BDF’s anti-poaching unit.
The well-armed unit didn’t prevent the entirety of poaching from taking place, but it did a decent job. At the same time, authorized, managed trophy hunting – the evidence on its benefits to conservation efforts remains mixed – was nixed. Wildlife tourism replaced it.
Altogether, Botswana was considered to be an unusually safe place for African elephants. However, in March, Khama stepped down as president, and in May of this year, the anti-poaching unit was disbanded without explanation. It’s no coincidence that the worst poaching incident of its kind has transpired shortly afterwards.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists African elephants as “vulnerable.” As pointed out by WWF, although there has been an international ban on ivory since 1989, its extreme value to practitioners of alternative medicine and makers of certain kinds of ornaments – particularly in China – means that it’s still continuing.
An uptick in demand from Asia means that, despite some successful recovery efforts, poaching remains a clear and present threat. It’s not the only danger they face: the conversion of plenty of their land into agricultural regions is causing their habitat to shrink.
Climate change remains a hazard too. These elephants have a broad range of habitats and food sources, which makes them more resilient to the phenomenon than other species. Saying that, they are sensitive to particularly high temperatures, and their limited genetic variability might limit their ability to adapt in the future.
At the same time, the loss of fresh water may prove to be a killer, and the rising mercury’s effects on nearby human populations may increasingly drive them into conflict with the elephants.
Poaching, however, remains the most pervasive issue. This latest incident, taking place not along the traditionally more vulnerable borders but deep within the heart of Botswana, is perhaps a sign of things to come.
Just take a look at what has transpired in nearby nations. Back in early 2012, a heavily-armed band of poachers went into Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, and killed over 300 elephants for their ivory.
“The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana,” Chase added. He notes that the 2018 aerial survey is only half completed, and there are concerns the final tally of poached elephants will be higher.