See link for video.
African elephants are crossing borders to escape lawlessness and fighting. They seem to be heading to Botswana, Gabon, Namibia and Uganda. These countries are bucking the trend of elephant declines elsewhere, due in part to their political stability, relatively sparse populations and low levels of government corruption.
With about 100 elephants slaughtered for ivory every day in Africa, they could disappear within decades across much of their range.
There are now less than half a million elephants on the continent, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, down from as many as 3 to 5 million in the 1930s and 1940s.
Tanzania has lost 60 per cent of its elephants to poachers in just the past five years, and neighbouring Mozambique 48 per cent, according to preliminary findings from the Great Elephant Census, the most exhaustive aerial survey ever conducted of bush or savannah elephants.
The census is bankrolled by philanthropist Paul Allen and being carried out by a coalition of wildlife conservation groups and African governments.
Three country surveys – Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania – are now finished, with 17 still ongoing and full results expected by the end of the year.
Fleeing the fighting
There was surprisingly good news from Uganda, which saw a sixfold increase in its elephants, up to 5000 individuals from a low of 800 in the 1990s following 30 years of armed conflict during which poachers operated with impunity.
Around 40 per cent of Uganda’s boom derives from herds fleeing recent fighting in the neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
But the biggest factor, according to Elkan, is the action the country’s government has taken. There are well-disciplined military patrols to help protect elephants, there are highly dedicated wildlife guards and park wardens, and revenue from tourist dollars is shared with locals to give them an incentive to protect wildlife.
“Uganda is proof that when it’s done right, conservation can secure elephants,” says Elkan.
Another success is Botswana, which has the largest elephant population of any African nation, and it has continued to increase in recent years.
“Botswana has one of the highest standards of governance in Africa, low population density and earns lots of money from high-end wildlife tourism,” says Simon Hedges, elephant coordinator for the WCS, who has been involved with the census.
Elephants are coming from Angola and Zimbabwe where poaching, driven by sophisticated wildlife crime syndicates, is rampant, Hedges says.
But, as in Uganda, Botswana’s elephant numbers are increasing mainly because of the high level of security within its preserves.
Namibia, too, has seen modest increases in its elephant population, according to Hedges.
He says that is thanks in part to Namibia’s system of conservancies that are managed by local communities. When people derive jobs and income from wildlife tourism and trophy hunting, he argues, they are more likely to keep poachers off their land.
The fourth success is scantly populated Gabon, which has become a lone safe haven for Africa’s forest elephants – a separate species from the larger and more numerous savannah elephants – whose populations in war-torn Central Africa plummeted by 62 per cent between 2002 and 2011.
“About half of Africa’s remaining forest elephants are in Gabon, and a third of Africa’s savannah elephants are in Botswana,” says Hedges. “It’s very shocking that so much of the fate of elephants rests in only two countries.”
Additional country reports in the Great Elephant Census will be released in coming months. With the exception of South Africa, which has maintained low levels of elephant poaching, much of the news is expected to be bad.
Whether China’s recent clamping down on ivory demand will be enough to cut the incentive to poach remains to be seen, especially as the price of ivory in China tripled between 2010 and 2014 – it sells for $2100 per kilogram.
But the four successful nations provide some basis for hope that where conflict is absent, corruption is minimal, and commitment to wildlife high, Africa’s elephants can be saved.