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Poaching is a pervasive global problem, and iconic mammals like elephants and rhinos are hit hard by illegal hunting. This is especially true in the world’s poorest countries and within protected areas, researchers reported recently in PLOS ONE.
Protected areas, such as national parks and wildlife refuges, are “the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation,” the researchers write. Yet many countries lack the resources to properly manage these sanctuaries. And in poor countries, people turn to the illegal wildlife trade out of financial necessity.
In the new study, biologists surveyed 40 years of conservation research literature, comprising 155 protected areas in 48 countries. The published papers included 294 different mammal species.
The bottom line was clear: “Across the globe, mammals in protected areas are at great risk of decline,” said Alfan Rija, an ecologist at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania and lead author of the paper. “And we found that protected areas of Africa are highly at risk of losing species.”
Big mammals like elephants, Earth’s largest land-dwellers, are especially vulnerable. While these animals provide essential functions to an area’s ecology, such as dispersing seeds in their dung, they grow slowly and reproduce infrequently. For example, the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) famously gestates for nearly 20 months before giving birth.
These aspects of mammalian biology are “the most important driver for these large mammals to decline, given the high pressure of illegal uptake,” Rija told Mongabay. Populations simply cannot “catch up” to counteract the hits they take from poaching, he noted.
The study also accounted for differences in “strictness” of protection, according to categories set by the IUCN. In almost all cases, stricter protection meant mammal populations were less likely to face losses. But in Asia, the authors found the greatest declines from illegal hunting occurred in the most strictly managed areas, where human use is supposed to be limited and tightly controlled.
“There is a high illegal market of wildlife body parts for traditional medicine,” Rija said of some areas in Asia. Lucrative species like tiger (Panthera tigris), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and pangolin (Manis) usually only reside within the tightest enclaves.
“We’ve lost more or less all wild, larger mammals outside of protected areas,” said Jonas Geldmann, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who was not involved with the study. “And in particular, stricter protected areas are where a lot of wildlife is left.” High illicit demand for these animals pushes poachers into these areas, despite their status as being more secure, Geldmann told Mongabay.
Although the study is limited in scope as a literature review, Geldmann noted, it confirms that poaching is an economic issue in Africa.
Tackling development in Africa is essential to address overhunting, Rija said. “If people are actually going to poach animals, they probably don’t have alternatives. The first important thing is to facilitate their development, to give opportunities for these kinds of communities so they don’t put pressure directly on wildlife,” said Rija, who conducted the work while earning his Ph.D. at the University of York, U.K.
In many cases, there is possibility and promise in pairing conservation projects with economic development efforts, Rija believes. For example, sponsoring ecotourism programs in communities could boost the livelihoods of residents.
“That can help local people actually generate their own income from wildlife,” Rija said. “If people are equipped with, for example, a financial loan to start their own wildlife farms, ranches or zoos and do that commercially, they could actually improve their local economies and incline away from poaching.”