African elephant poaching hit its peak in 2011 and the mammals faced a high risk of extinction at the hands of poachers. However, according to a new analysis of annual surveillance data, poaching has dropped significantly in the years since.
A declining demand for ivory in China and government action in some African countries seem to be the causes of the progress.
A surge of elephant poaching started in 2005, and researchers suspected the rise was due to increasing demand for ivory in China, where the commodity has long been treasured. As a result of poaching, the continental population of savanna elephants dropped by almost a third by 2014.
Scientists worked with local rangers and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to determine which elephants died of natural causes and which died at the hands of poachers.
Analyzing that data led researchers to the conclusion that illegal killing peaked in 2011, when 10% of elephants were killed by poachers. In their new analysis, the researchers report that number has fallen to about 4%.
To understand why the amount of poaching decreased, the researchers looked at the ivory trade. They observed the market price of mammoth ivory, since elephant ivory is illegal to trade, and found that the prices rose sharply as poaching fell off.
This indicated that the Chinese ban on ivory sales in 2017 may play a big role in the decrease in elephant poaching. In Africa, law enforcement focused on more patrols by park rangers with access to more resources, but the study claims these efforts were overshadowed by the popularity of the ivory industry.
Despite the overall improvements, scientists warn elephants are still under threat. According to Colin Beale, an ecologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom, it’s too early to be complacent and elephants are not out of the risk zone yet. Researchers intend to conduct further studies on the matter.