The poaching rates of Africa’s iconic elephants have started to decline after reaching a peak in 2011, but the spectre of the practice threatens to return if governments fail to address poverty, corruption and the black market trade in ivory.
According to the new report, published in Nature Communications earlier this week, rates of illegal poaching tracked a downward trend in poaching mortality in the elephant population, from a startling 10% in 2011 to less than 4% in 2017.
It is estimated there are around 350,000 elephants left in Africa, but approximately 10-15,000 are killed each year by poachers.
Despite the good news, the African elephant faces functional extinction, with population pockets in heavily wooded and protected areas, if poaching continues at the current rate.
One of the study’s lead researchers, the University of York’s Dr Colin Beale, said that while the research did indeed reveal some good news, the rates of poaching are still above what he describes as sustainable levels.
“We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining," Dr Beale said.
“The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South- East Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”
The research team say it is impossible to say if the ivory trade ban introduced in China 2017 is having an impact on the figures as ivory prices started to fall before the ban and may reflect a wider downturn in the Chinese economy.
“We need to reduce demand in Asia and improve the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa; these are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants”, Dr Beale added.
“While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem."