17 Jul 2019 Story Environmental rights and governance

The struggle to sustain Africa’s elephant population

According to reports from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it is estimated that there are around 350,000 elephants left in Africa, but approximately 10,000–15,000 are killed each year by poachers. A recent report by Colin Beale, from the University of York's Department of Biology, showed that poaching rates seem to respond to demand in Southeast Asia and especially China, a factor that has overwhelmed the capacity of local and global authorities to curb the carnage.

While poaching levels in Africa have dropped in the past eight years, the sustainability rate of the elephants is still low. Findings from the University of York show that the regions with the highest poaching rates are West and Central Africa, with West Africa currently having the smallest elephant population. Major habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanization is also to blame for the decline. An investigation by the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, found that even though legally licensed stores it had visited in 2017 no longer sold ivory in the year 2018, the total amount of illegal ivory pieces that were found in that particular year had actually increased.

Organizations such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the World Wildlife Fund, INTERPOL, the UN Environment Programme’s African Elephant Fund, and Freeland Foundation, among others, have sprung up to support the fight against poaching in Africa and the illegal trade chains in Asia. China and Viet Nam have been highlighted as the main markets for illegal wildlife products.

Contributing factor 1: habitat loss

As human populations expand, more land is being converted to agriculture and development activities. As a result, elephant habitat has been shrinking and becoming more fragmented, and people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact—and conflict—with each other. As long as there is population growth and urbanization, habitat loss and degradation, conflict with communities will remain a major threat to elephants' survival.

In May 2019, the government of Botswana lifted its blanket hunting ban which was imposed in 2014 on the grounds of increasing elephant populations. This came in the wake of events in the north-eastern side of Botswana, where a number of elephants were killed for destroying crops.

According to UN Environment, Botswana’s elephant population has increased nearly 10-fold since 1970, to 130,000. The decision to lift the hunting ban in Botswana will make 400 hunting permits available annually, which has raised concerns amongst conservationists.

Contributing factor 2: weak policies, corruption and poverty

Corruption and poverty fuel poaching in the African region. According to Julian Blanc, a researcher in the Wildlife Management Unit of UN Environment in Nairobi, the biggest threat to the elephant population is the ever-expanding need for development, making habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by humans a serious threat to elephant survival in the long term.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, insufficient anti-poaching capacity, weak law enforcement and corruption undermine efforts to stop poaching and trafficking in some countries.

Way forward

Continuous engagement with local and indigenous communities, especially with those living in close proximity to wildlife habitats should be strengthened. The Tanzanian government, during a recent Pan-African Conference on strengthening information-sharing infrastructure and governance frameworks to address human-nature conflicts, acknowledged that working closely with local communities has hugely helped the country to curb poaching and illegal wildlife activities. It has also enhanced people’s understanding of the importance of preserving elephant populations, as well as given them an opportunity to actively partake in national decision-making processes of wildlife and natural resource conservation.

As Beale suggested, there is a need to improve the livelihoods of people who cohabit with wildlife in Africa and stricter measures need be put in place to ensure that countries such as China eliminate their ivory demand.

Regional partnerships are also essential in promoting access to sustainable funding and technical support to regional and national agencies. UN Environment supports countries to create opportunities at national and regional levels to promote geoinformation sharing on issues addressing concerns of illegal wildlife trade as well as policies which promote mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts through policies.

Countries should invest in wildlife management and conservation tools. They should also strengthen and improve training of rangers and provide them with better equipment, including high-frequency radio systems, night vision devices and computer and smartphone software, and aircrafts equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology.

Finally, UN Environment promotes cross-border cooperation between wildlife conservation and customs authorities, and also strengthens the capacities of countries to enforce the environmental rule of law.

For more information, please contact: Mamadou.Kane[at]un.org I Dorris.Chepkoech[at]un.org I Niamh.Brannigan[at]un.org I Catherine.Abuto[at]un.org