Severin Hauenstein had a hunch. The biologist from Germany’s University of Freiburg suspected that there was a link between the places where elephants in Tanzania were killed for their ivory and the visible presence of law enforcement.
He thought that the carcasses of poached elephants would generally cluster farther away from anti-poaching ranger posts. When he and his colleagues crunched the data for the once elephant-rich Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem, they were surprised to find no correlation at all.
But then they took a closer look. For most ranger stations, the pattern was consistent with their expectations. But for others, they found the opposite: Carcasses were found quite close to ranger posts. That led to a second hunch—that the rangers stationed at those posts were complicit in poaching. Elephant losses in Ruaha-Rungwa, in south-central Tanzania, had been staggering. Authorities estimated that the population fell from more than 34,000 in 2009 to just 8,000 by 2014.
The researchers identified two variables that influence local poaching rates more than expected. One is poverty, as measured by infant mortality rate, derived from data provided by Columbia University’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network and the UN. The other is corruption, as measured by the NGO Transparency International.