How strong is Africa’s last elephant stronghold?
Newly published aerial surveys—out just weeks after the country lifted its hunting ban—indicate that poaching is on the rise in Botswana.
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PUBLISHED JUNE 13, 2019
Botswana—widely considered a safe haven for elephants in Africa—appears to be suffering from its own surge in poaching, according to aerial survey work published today in the journal Current Biology.
“We have a significant poaching problem—let’s deal with it,” says Mike Chase, who, as the director of the Botswana-based nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, led the latest aerial survey study as well as earlier elephant counts, including the 18-country Great Elephant Census. “We were warned by conservationists in other countries that the poachers would eventually come down to Botswana, and now they’re here,” he says.
Botswana is estimated to be home to more than 130,000 savanna elephants—about a third of Africa’s remaining population. Until recently, the southern African country had largely escaped the scourge of elephant killings for ivory, still in high demand in China and elsewhere. (Read about how elephants fleeing poaching hotspots went to Botswana.)
Elephants Without Borders says that carcasses with extensive skull damage and the tusks removed, like this one in a remote area of Botswana, were likely poached for ivory.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ELEPHANTS WITHOUT BORDERS
In Chase’s 2014 survey work, his team saw no incidents of suspected elephant poaching in Botswana. But in 2018, across five areas, they counted 156 fresh or recent carcasses whose skulls had been cut open and the tusks removed. Many of the carcasses were hidden under bushes, suggesting, Chase says, that those animals were victims of the illegal ivory trade.
Rise in elephant poaching
Researchers in northern Botswana confirmed that 156 elephants were poached for ivory in 2018, based mainly on damage sustained to the animals’ skulls. They estimate that at least 385 elephants had been poached in the country in 2017 and 2018.
But in 2018, across five areas, they counted
156 fresh or recent carcasses whose skulls had been cut open and the tusks
removed. Many of the carcasses were hidden under bushes, suggesting, Chase
says, that those animals were victims of the illegal ivory trade.
Elephants Without Borders estimates that country-wide at least 385
elephants were poached from 2017 through early October 2018?a spike that
may portend future population declines. This, Chase says, should be seen as
a call to action.
The African Wildlife Foundation, an international conservation nonprofit,
estimates that as many as 35,000 elephants are killed each year in Africa.
Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park, for example, had about 900 elephants
in 2004 but only an estimated 48 just over a decade later, losses likely
driven by ivory poaching. And in the Ruaha-Rungwa region of south-central
Tanzania, the elephant population is estimated to have fallen from more
than 34,000 in 2009 to 8,000 by 2014.
The Botswana count in Current Biology appears on the heels of last month’s
announcement by the government that it will lift its five-year-old hunting
ban on all species, a controversial move that will allow renewed trophy
hunts of elephants and other animals. Such hunts, the government said, are
needed because dangerous encounters between people and elephants have been
increasing and may threaten livelihoods, among other reasons.
The paper follows an earlier iteration of the findings in a 2018 report by
Elephants Without Borders. That work reviewed by other scientists and
funded and released independently?had been dismissed by the Botswana
government and some scientists as an overestimation of the poaching problem.
“Our main conclusion remains the same [as last year’s report], but we
decided the best thing to do was take all of our results, make sure we had
done everything correctly, and put it together in a paper that went through
the journal’s formal peer-review process, which is about as good as you can
get in the scientific world,? says Scott Schlossberg, an Elephants Without
Borders ecologist who led the analysis. The hope, he says, is that people
will now be convinced about the scale of this problem.
Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and
Tourism did not respond to requests for comment about elephant poaching in
To conduct the counts, Chase flew in a small, single-engine plane, sitting
alongside the pilot and recording carcass sightings. Two observers sat in
the back doing their own counts, one of whom was almost always a Botswana
government employee, according to Elephants Without Borders. They followed
up with helicopter and photo inspections of some carcasses.
Whether or not Botswana’s hunting ban helped deter poachers or, as some
assert, led to unchecked elephant numbers, perhaps making villagers feel
justified in killing elephants that damaged their crops and then taking
their tusks, remains unclear, says crime and security expert Vanda
Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Felbab-Brown considers the findings in Current Biology “credible” an”strengthened” from a year ago. “This work looks solid”, she says.
Gaseitsiwe Masunga, an ecologist at the University of Botswana’s Okavango
Research Institute and a former chief wildlife officer for Botswana’s
Department of Wildlife and National Parks, also accepts the findings. “I
think the extrapolations here are reasonable” he says, adding, “I think it
is accurate and correct that the number of poaching incidents is
increasing”. Moreover, Masunga says, earlier ground-based surveys indicated
that poaching numbers were on the rise, and aerial work allows for even
But Goemeone Mogomotsi, a senior research fellow at the Okavango Research
Institute, wrote in an email that he’s skeptical about the Elephants
Without Borders methodology and numbers.
Many of the de-tusked elephant carcasses, he says, may have been animals
that died from natural causes and then were de-tusked by government
employees,a relatively common practice. “That is done on a regular basis
when elephants die, and their carcasses are identified by anti-poaching
units” he says. “To take out those tusks, a similar process of hacking the
skulls is likely carried out.”
Both Chase and Masunga, however, say that anti-poaching units don’t conceal
carcasses and typically indicate their removal of tusks by marking the
carcasses with spray paint. It would also be unusual, too demanding
logistically, for anti-poaching units to de-tusk elephants in the remote
areas where these elephants were found, Chase says. He adds that it isn’t
typical for anti-poaching units to de-tusk new carcasses; instead, they
take tusks from old, decomposed carcasses.
Publishing the new findings in a peer-reviewed journal is also about
vindication, Chase says. ?To have your scientific reputation called into
question is soul-destroying. I’m hoping this paper will in some way restore
my reputation as a well-known elephant conservationist and, more
importantly, help with the plight of elephants in our country and restore
our legacy of being a safe haven for the world?s largest elephant
In addition to exhaustively cross-checking their earlier work, Schlossberg,
Chase, and co-author Robert Sutcliffe added one new element. To test for
other possible causes of elephant deaths, they studied the regions
immediately surrounding the five poaching hot spots to ascertain whether
they differed from the hot spots in terms of available food for elephants,
drought conditions, elephant densities, and numbers of people.
What they found was that the non-poached areas generally had poorer food
supplies and less water. Elephant densities were roughly comparable, and
there were more people in the areas outside the poaching hot spots. They
concluded that these factors don’t explain the deaths of the elephants and
that poaching is the more likely cause.
Overall, the team estimated that between 2014 and 2018 the number of
elephant carcasses in Botswana increased by 593 percent. Some of the
increase may have been from natural causes, including a country-wide
drought a few years ago, Schlossberg says. Elephant numbers stayed roughly
stable from 2014 to 2018. But that in itself is problematic, he explains,
because elephant populations are expected to increase a few percentage
points every year, unless something keeps those numbers in check, such as
drought or disease, or poaching.
“We don’t want to say poaching has caused the population to stop growing, we
don’t have enough evidence to claim that” but it is worrisome when an
elephant population is not growing,”he says.
The carcass evidence suggests that poachers in Botswana have concentrated
on tuskers, the older bulls most likely to have the largest tusks.
Once those elephants are gone, poachers turn to the matriarchs. At that
point, Schlossberg says, elephant populations are especially vulnerable
because the older females are the repositories of the herd’s collective
wisdom. The matriarchs are the ones who know where to find water and food.
(Learn more about ivory poaching trends: Under poaching pressure, elephants
are evolving to lose their tusks.)
“It has become easy to believe that Botswana was always going to be safe
for elephants, even if it was going really badly for elephants in other
countries around Botswana,”Schlossberg says. ?But now we know that it is
Chase says that to protect Botswana’s elephants, “we cannot expect
government to deal with these complex challenges on their own” Some
poaching hot spots are in concessions leased to large international tourism
or safari companies, and they should ramp up their own anti-poaching
efforts. Chase points to two concessions in the Okavango Delta that have
anti-poaching patrols in those highly monitored areas, Elephants Without
Borders found no elephants that had been killed for their ivory.