Where humans suffer, so do elephants
3 June 2019

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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.

That’s why Hauenstein, together with collaborators from the University of York, in the U.K., and the United Nations Environment Programme, decided to compare annual poaching rates at 53 different sites in sub-Saharan Africa with information about local environmental, economic, social, and political factors. Their analysis appears today in the journal Nature Communications.

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.

„What was particularly interesting was that both poverty and corruption correlated more strongly with local levels of poaching than [did] the adequacy of law enforcement,“ Hauenstein says. Poaching levels were assessed by experts under a program called Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), which provides data to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife.

„To us, it looks like it isn’t possible to just increase law enforcement more and more and solve the problem,“ Hauenstein says, although he’s quick to emphasize that this doesn’t mean law enforcement shouldn’t remain a priority—“just that there are other things that need to be addressed.“ In other words, there are places where it may be prudent to focus more on alleviating poverty or reducing corruption.

While these findings may seem self-evident, efforts to reduce poaching largely remain focused on law enforcement, Hauenstein says.

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