Dramatic New Estimates of Elephant Killing Highlight the Need for New Data

New research from Save The Elephants, “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants,” published today in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, quantifies the impact of poaching on African elephants across the continent as even worse than previously thought.

Study estimates a much more dramatic decline in African elephant numbers. 

Lead author George Wittemyer and the research team estimate that more than 100,000 elephants were poached between 2010-2012 on the basis of an extrapolation using fine-scale demographic data of an intensely monitored population in Kenya, carcass surveys for CITES MIKE sites and a derived rate of killing applied to International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) regional population estimates. Illegal killing rates averaged 6.8% per year continent wide (exceeding expected natural population increase by 2-3% per year), with regional trends being the worst in Central Africa (with an estimated 63.7% decline in forest elephants between 2002 to 2012 there.) 

Overall, 75% of the population sites examined have been in net decline since 2009. Intriguingly, the analysis suggests that the rate of killing in 2012, though still unsustainably high, declined after a peak in 2011. The authors explain that it is critical to identify the drivers of this change -- a change in the right direction for elephants -- and they point to the possible influence of ivory auction restrictions in China in 2011.

The analytic approach used to estimate the actual number of killed elephants relies on a total African elephant population estimate that is likely inaccurate because it is based on outdated data for many sites.

The Great Elephant Census aims to provide the most up-to-date, scientifically reliable estimates for 90% of Africa’s savanna elephant populations across 18 countries, as well as identify poaching activity, other human encroachment and habitat degradation.

We are still early in the process of surveying elephant populations to know whether new data will show larger or smaller than expected numbers. It will create the most accurate base to apply these new killing-rate estimates and derive a total mortality figure for African elephants. But we know that better data is needed to inform current and future efforts to conserve these animals. 

Why We Are Counting in These Areas

Before we could begin the Great Elephant Census, the team had to decide which areas to fly over to make sure we hit our goal of counting at least 90% of the savannah elephants in Africa. 

Data from the African Elephant Specialist Group helped inform that decision. The areas represented are those that we feel have a ‘definite’ elephant population. ‘Definite’ refers to a specific term from the AfESG that correlates to the highest level of accuracy in a previous survey count. 

Here are some data points:

80% of African savannah elephants are found in just 5 countries: Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa

Add Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia and that area is home to 95% of Africa’s elephants

The ‘definite’ numbers are only one piece of the story however, and why there is a need for very accurate baseline counts across the most heavily populated countries, as well as other areas.  There are also ‘probable’, ‘possible’ and ‘speculative’ numbers of elephants in each country.  These populations are less known, but could add up to hundreds of thousands of elephants.

Check out chart below which is based on existing data:

Botswana 133,08821,18335%
Tanzania 95,35110,27858%
Zimbabwe 47,3663,77570%
Kenya 26,36577176%
South Africa 22,889081%
Mozambique 17,7533,34086%
Namibia 16,0544,47290%
Zambia 16,6663,71395%
South Sudan 1,1725,88297%
Burkina Faso 4,47732098%
Uganda 2,2231,03198%
Cameroon 7751,07999%
Angola 81880199%
Malawi 86521899%
Benin 91648100%
Ethiopia 6280100%
Chad 4540100%
Mali 3440100%
Liberia 2599100%
Eritrea 960100%
Niger 850100%
Swaziland 350100%
Rwanda 1117100%