It would be an understatement to say that elephant poaching has dominated the African conservation news of late, at least in the United States. On September 3, The New York Times ran a lengthy feature by their East Africa correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman, with the rather emotive headline ‘Elephants dying in epic frenzy as ivory fuels wars and profits.’ The article, based on field reporting by Gettleman in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Garamba National Park, describes the involvement of various military and paramilitary regimes in ivory poaching and trade in this conflict zone, including armies from DRC, Uganda, South Sudan, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the notorious band of rebels-cum-marrauders led by Joseph Kony. Gettleman also added a new twist to recent ivory poaching coverage by relaying reports from the field that the Ugandan military, which receives considerable US government support, may have been responsible for a recent slaughter of elephants in Garamba. Earlier this week Yale e360 followed up the Times piece with an interview with Gettleman (‘Shining a bright light on Africa’s elephant slaughter’) that discusses his reporting from DRC and investigations into the linkages between regional militaries and ivory trade.
Soon after, National Geographic released its October issue, which features a piece by Brian Christy (‘Ivory worship’) focusing on the other side of the ivory trade and poaching crisis, namely surging demand from Asia. Christy’s article examines the role that religious carvings play in this growing Asian ivory market, using a colorful cast of players that includes Thai Buddhist ‘elephant monks’ and Philippino priests. The piece also provides a first-hand look at ivory manufacturing in China and devotes considerable space to a discussion of the impact of the ivory sales authorized by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1999 and 2008. The article’s main ultimate policy argument is that those sales have helped encourage new black market demand from China and other Asian countries- an argument that has been made frequently over the years in debates over the ivory trade- and is heavily critical of CITES as well as TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring body whose research is a critical influence on CITES decisions.
These reports all highlight the basic reality that the illegal ivory trade, like the black market trade in rhino horn, has grown rapidly over the past several years. TRAFFIC issued a report in July that documents the increase in ivory seizures over the past several years, with over 24 tonnes seized in 2011, the highest level since the elephant was listed on Appendix 1 of CITES in 1989, which effectively banned the international ivory trade. While Christy’s Nat Geo piece documents some interesting micro-scale dimensions of this black market trade and the mechanics of smuggling ivory, the macro-level drivers are fairly intuitive: increasing wealth and consumption in China and other parts of Asia, as well as increasing trade links between China and Africa.
On the ‘supply’ side, Gettleman’s Yale e360 interview highlights the link between elephant poaching and the capacity, or lack thereof, of many African governments to police the ivory trade, or indeed to provide even the basic public services of order and security. In discussing the role of the DRC army in elephant poaching, Gettleman highlights this link between state capacity and law enforcement:
…this taps into a bigger issue of state failure. The reason why the Congolese army is so undisciplined, and preys upon its own people and its own environment is because that state is incredibly weak. The central government in Congo barely controls that territory and in some areas it is totally irrelevant. Congo has had a legacy of decades of misrule, sometimes quite brutal. And we are seeing this now expressed against elephants.
Much of the publicity of the surging ivory trade includes the explicit or implicit suggestion that the slaughter of elephants has gotten as bad as it was during the 1970s and 1980s, when the overall continental population of elephants dropped by more than 50% from about 1.3 million to around half a million animals. During this time hard-hit countries such as Kenya lost most of their elephants, with numbers there dropping from over 200,000 to about 20,000; Tanzania’s population went from perhaps 180,000 to about 55,000 by 1989.
It is hard to find up-to-date analysis of elephant population trends and the impact that the current surge in poaching may be having on elephants; the African Elephant Database, maintained by the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, released its last compilation in 2007, although a note on the TRAFFIC web site says that a new continental synthesis will be released later this year. But bits and pieces of information suggest that the continent-wide situation is not quite as bleak as it was in the 1980s before the ivory ban, and a bit more complex in terms of regional trends.
Firstly, the largest population of elephants in Africa is now in Southern Africa, centered on northern Botswana, home to about 130,000 elephants, the largest single elephant range state population. The transboundary region of northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe (centered on Hwange National Park), Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, and southern Zambia, contains around 250,000 elephants, between half and a third of all the elephants in Africa. A main objective of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area being developed across the borders of those four countries as well as neighboring Angola, is to expand the area available to elephants through improved local conservation measures in Zambia and Angola, lessening the pressure on what are considered excessive numbers of elephants in Botswana and Zimbabwe. A similar rationale is incorporated in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area which aims to expand elephant range from South Africa’s Kruger National Park into neighboring Mozambique’s new Limpopo National Park. Elephant numbers in Kruger have been considered overabundant for decades, with frequent debates over the years about culling elephants in order to reduce their population within Kruger.
Southern Africa’s elephant populations have for the most part been increasing for decades, including during the 1970s and 1980s when elephant numbers were plummeting throughout the rest of their African range, and this growth continues today. The reasons for these trends include a range of factors, primarily 1) the historic reduction in elephants and other large mammals south of the Zambezi River by white settlers and game hunters during earlier colonial periods; 2) relatively strong rule of law and highly capable wildlife management and law enforcement bodies throughout Southern Africa- for example, Botswana routinely receives the best scores on Transparency International’s annual corruption survey of any country in Africa; 3) sound wildlife policies that grant private landholders and local communities rights to utilize wildlife and control over revenues generated by wildlife on their land (see this edited volume for a useful regional overview); 4) high and growing levels of wildlife tourism, hunting, and related industries that generate revenues from wildlife across both government and local landholders, providing resources for management and law enforcement and incentives to invest in conservation.
Outside of Southern Africa, the largest regional concentration of elephants is in East Africa. Tanzania trails only Botswana in terms of its national population, having about 110,000 elephants. Kenya has an estimated 35,000. Both of these national populations have rebounded significantly since 1989, when Tanzania had about 55,000 elephants and Kenya an estimated 19,000 at that time. While the trends over the past two decades have constituted impressive recoveries, there has been a widely reported and documented surge in poaching, as well as trafficking of ivory through East African ports, in recent years. Yet a closer look at available data suggests that the current elephant population trends in East Africa are at least somewhat equivocal. In Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, the country’s largest single elephant population inhabiting the country’s largest state protected area, census results reported in 2011 estimated the elephant population at 12,572, up from 11,696 recorded in the previous census in 2008. While these figures may be subject to sampling or counting error and subject to debate, it seems unlikely that poaching levels in Kenya could be reverting to the out-of-control situation that prevailed in the ’70s and ’80s if elephant numbers in Tsavo are holding their own or increasing.
Tanzania has relatively clear and recent elephant population data and trends as summarized in the2010-2015 National Elephant Management Plan, published by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society. This data reveals considerable localized variation in elephant population trends and status within Tanzania’s main elephant ranges. Two areas- Ugalla Game Reserve in the west and Selous Game Reserve in the south, the latter of which is the country’s largest protected area- have experienced significant declines in elephant numbers since 2006, particularly in the vast Selous where the population may have dropped from about 50,000 elephants in 2006 to about 39,000 three years later. Other large elephant populations in the southern and western part of the country, such as the Katavi and Ruaha-Rukwa ecosystems, do not demonstrate these large-scale declines, and in the northern part of the country, notably the Serengeti and Tarangire ecosystems, elephant numbers have continued to increase, a trend that goes back more than 20 years now.
The situation in Tanzania is clearly complex and, while the upsurge in poaching in certain areas since 2006 is certainly threatening both elephant populations and human security, the situation, as in Kenya, is not quite what the data records from the ’70s and ’80s. If one were to generalize, it seems that governance may be playing a key role in the levels of elephant poaching in Tanzania’s different wildlife areas. National parks, which are managed by the parastatal Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), which generally has a good reputation and has the advantage of considerable revenues generated by tourism magnets such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Serengeti National Park (Serengeti alone generates more than $25 million annually), generally seem to have elephant populations that are increasing or stable, according to the data reported in the National Elephant Management Plan. Game Reserves such as Ugalla and the Selous, by contrast, are managed by the Ministry of Natural Resource and Tourism’s Wildlife Division, which has long had a reputation for weak governance and corruption (for an overview see this publication), and it is these areas that seem to have lost large numbers of elephants to poaching in recent years. The Wildlife Division also lacks the resources that TANAPA has at its disposal; Game Reserves are used primarily for tourist hunting, which is a lucrative wildlife industry in Tanzania, but the Wildlife Division does not retain this revenue but rather remits it to the Treasury, and depends on the overall government budgetary process for its own operating revenues.
If governance differences between governmental authorities within Tanzania helps explain the variation in levels of poaching across different protected area management categories, then similar governance differences across the African continent seem key to the growing regional divergence in the status of elephants in different areas. The reality today is not that elephant populations are being slaughtered indiscriminately across all of Africa; this is clearly not occurring in Southern Africa and significant parts of East Africa. Where elephants are really getting hammered and may be facing localized or national depletion or extinction is across much of Central Africa as well as the Sahel and West Africa, where elephant populations are threatened by both habitat loss and poaching. As Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting illustrates, the underlying problem for elephants in those areas is two-fold: First, governments’ law enforcement capacity in those regions is weak or, in extreme cases such as DRC, non-existent, while corruption is rampant. Second, outside of East and Southern Africa, where elephants are increasingly concentrated as they decline outside those regions, elephants do not generate significant revenues through tourism, which means there are few local or national economic incentives to protect elephants, and limited resources with which to do so.
Indeed, it would be a very interesting exercise to run a correlation between a) elephant population trends and levels of poaching at the landscape scale; and b) tourism revenues generated by those landscapes. It seems that where elephants are a part of a significant tourism industry and generate substantial revenue, and where government (or private or local community) protected area governance is relatively sound, elephants are at least withstanding the current poaching onslaught. Where neither of those two conditions exist, their prospects are increasingly bleak.