What drives elephant poaching? It’s not greed

Fewer elephants were poached in areas where communities were healthier and wealthier, a study on thousands of killings in 30 African countries found.

By Rachel Fobar
Published 1 Feb 2023, 09:37 GMT
“When we are looking to protect wildlife, we can't do that without thinking about the well-being ...
“When we are looking to protect wildlife, we can't do that without thinking about the well-being of people,” says Timothy Kuiper, co-author of a study about elephant poaching in Africa.
Photograph by David Chancellor, Nat Geo Image Collection

Elephant poaching is likely driven by need, not greed, according to findings published this month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Fewer elephants were poached where humans were healthier and wealthier, according to researchers from Oxford University, the UN, the University of Cape Town, and other institutions who analysed data from more than 10,000 killings over nearly two decades and across 30 African countries. They based their study on mortality rates of children under five and surveys assessing, for example, the number of rooms in houses, the availability of clean water and toilets, and ownership of assets such as a refrigerator and television.

Poaching is a major cause of decline for both endangered savanna elephants and critically endangered forest elephants, whose combined numbers have fallen to about 415,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Previously, evidence of what spurred killings of elephants and other animals was anecdotal and from particular case studies. But now, nonprofits and governments “can use the study as justification” for conservation approaches, says Timothy Kuiper, a co-author of the study, commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the international agreement that manages the wildlife trade. Other motivators of poaching include corruption and global ivory prices.  

“When we are looking to protect wildlife, we can't do that without thinking about the well-being of people,” he says. To better combat poaching, conservationists have to think creatively, implementing strategies such as anti-corruption government reforms, demand-reduction in ivory-consuming countries, improved education, health, and economic programs, and increased support for wildlife rangers.

Poaching is a significant cause of decline for both savanna and forest elephants, according to the IUCN.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

While law enforcement remains important, “the health and welfare of local communities are essential factors in realising wildlife conservation objectives,” say Thea Henriette Carroll and Tanya McGregor, who work with the CITES elephant poaching monitoring program. “This provides further justification for affected communities to be engaged in conservation planning and protected areas management.”

The research team found that poaching occurred more frequently in Central Africa and near the Mozambique-Tanzania border and affected forest elephants more severely than their savanna cousins. From 2002 to 2020, Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saw more than 860 elephants die at the hands of poachers, and Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania, more than 750. Surrounding areas had among the lowest household wealth scores and mid-level health scores.

Measured on a scale of 0 to 100, wealthier regions typically have scores of 60 and above. All the areas in the study scored below 45, and those with the lowest scores had higher levels of poaching. By 2020 in the DRC and Tanzania, wealth scores had risen only to about 25 and 26 respectively. The DRC had about 79 child deaths per thousand live births, and Tanzania had 47, according to the most recent data.

Meanwhile, elephants have fared much better in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The wealth score of neighbouring communities rose steadily from 2002 through 2020, to about 43, and Etosha recorded just two illegal killings during those years. (Namibia’s rhino poaching numbers nearly doubled in 2022 to 87 rhinos, but this appears to be the work of international syndicates rather than local poachers.)

Today, Namibia’s more than 80 communal conservancies give some 200,000 local people a stake in managing about 20 percent of the nation’s land. This community-based natural resource management system is credited with creating more than 6,000 jobs since the 1990s and increasing both elephant and lion populations.

When local communities enjoy the benefits of conservation, it reduces incentives to poach, Carroll and McGregor say. “It will be important for governments to ensure that local communities are not subject to carrying the burden of the costs associated with this wildlife, but instead have access to income-generating opportunities that can help to lift communities out of poverty.”

Illegal killings are driven by criminal networks who recruit poachers rather than by opportunistic hunters, Kuiper says. “When a lot of [Africa’s] national parks were established, people were often forcibly evicted from the land that was now designated a protected area,” he says. “Local people who had been subsistence hunting suddenly became labelled as poachers.”

The colonial origins of wildlife hunting laws explain in part why some Africans “continue to resist legislation to protect wildlife” and require strategies “that address social inequalities,” UK- and Netherlands-based researchers concluded in a 2015 review of the connections between poaching and poverty, part of a growing body of research about what motivates illegal killings of wildlife.

A 2019 study concluded that poverty, measured by infant mortality rate and income data, was among the strongest predictors of illegal hunting. In a 2017 survey of 173 Tanzanians living on the border of Ruaha National Park who had admitted to illegally killing wildlife, 164 respondents said they would stop poaching if they had the income to support themselves and their families.

People living within about five miles of wildlife refuges in Tanzania also reported losing up to half their income in the year leading up to the survey to destruction of their crops by elephants and killings of their livestock by lions, says Eli Knapp, a co-author of the 2017 survey and professor of ecology at Houghton University, in New York State. “If you're closest to the park, you really do suffer more cost than benefit of the protected area,” he says.

That most poachers interviewed were poor raised an important question, Knapp says: “What is the level of income or livelihood that you have to bring a household up to to get them to voluntarily refrain from poaching?” Maybe it’s a dollar amount, or maybe it’s about allowing them to participate in protecting the park’s wildlife.

But the situation isn’t hopeless, he adds—in the survey, he asked everyone a hypothetical question: What would it take for you to stop poaching? “Nobody said nothing.”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.


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