Elephant poaching spikes in Botswana, endangering the species

A new study has found that poaching of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) for ivory has escalated in northern Botswana, a region that was previously one of the safest for the animals.

In the year just prior to the survey’s completion in 2018, poachers killed at least 385 of the animals, report researchers led by Michael Chase from charitable organisation Elephants Without Borders in the journal Current Biology

Overall, between 2014 and 2018, aerial surveys revealed that the number of elephant carcasses in the area increased by an estimated 21%. Fresh carcasses less than a year old increased by a whopping 593%.

The findings suggest the poaching most likely started two or three years ago, says first author Scott Schlossberg, because they found almost no evidence of it in their 2014 survey. 

While mortality rates increased during the surveyed period, the team found that elephant populations did not change. However, similar patterns in nearby African countries preceded population crashes. Therefore, the researchers warn, the increasing mortality rate can grow very quickly out of control.

“If the poachers are not being caught, they will keep exploiting the population,” Schlossberg explains. “That’s how countries like Tanzania and Mozambique ended up losing tens of thousands of elephants in under a decade.”

The aerial surveys were conducted over 94,000 square kilometres of elephant habitats, and researchers covered thousands more kilometres in helicopters to inspect carcasses in “hot spots” and verify the cause of death.

In most cases they discovered clear evidence of poaching for ivory, “such as skulls chopped with an axe to remove tusks or carcasses covered with brush to hide them”.

All poached elephants inspected were mature bulls, the ivory tusks of which can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. The researchers took more than 100 photos of the carcasses and have published them with the paper along with their survey data.  {%recommended 4217%}

“We want to be transparent so that people can see for themselves what is happening in Botswana now,” says Schlossberg.

One-third of Africa’s remaining savanna elephants live in Botswana, so this population is critical for the species’ survival. 

The group previously led the Great Elephant Census across Africa, reporting in 2016 that populations had fallen by a third, leaving just over 350,000 savanna elephants. In less than a decade, more than 140,000 of the species had fallen victim to ivory poaching and habitat destruction.

Poaching is not to be confused with hunting elephants for sport, which the Botswana government recently reallowed. Schlossberg does not think lifting the hunting ban will increase elephants’ extinction risk, believing the quota for hunting will be 400 per year: 0.3% of the population.

But he does think the findings offer new insights into the status of ivory poaching? While a recent study reported that illegal activity had declined, he says the coverage of dead carcasses was not complete and therefore “may not reflect what is happening in a lot of places, like most of Botswana”.

“Ivory prices have dropped but remain high, and there is a still a thriving black market,” he says. 

“Since we submitted our paper, we have continued to find poached elephants, and more poaching incidents have been reported. So, the problem does not seem to be improving in Botswana.”

Schlossberg adds that their figure of 385 elephants being poached in the year before 2018, based on the number of verified carcasses in the hotspots, is likely an under-estimate. 

“Because of the onset of the wet season, we were not able to verify many of the fresh and recent carcasses we saw during the aerial survey,” he explains. “The actual number poached is certainly higher.”

The researchers are clear about the threat of increased poaching and have shared their findings with the Botswana Government to inform law enforcement efforts.

“[T]he evidence in this paper is indisputable and supports our warning that elephant bulls are being killed by poaching gangs,” Chase says, adding, “we need to stop them before they become bolder.”

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