You probably already know the perilous position that the world’s elephants are currently negotiating. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has officially listed the Asian elephant as endangered and the African elephant as vulnerable. According to World Wildlife Fund, African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to about 415,000 today. In recent years, at least 20,000 elephants have been killed in Africa annually for their tusks, with African forest elephants taking the most hits.
That’s why when a study came out last year reporting that elephant poaching rates in Africa had started to decline after reaching a peak in 2011—from 10 percent in that year to less than 4 percent in 2017—we all breathed a sigh of relief.
But then, in 2020, the coronavirus made a dramatic entrance worldwide. Will this mean that there will be another uptick in elephant deaths—or have we started to turn the corner on the poaching crisis for good?
A plunge in elephant poaching: only an illusion?
Of all the wildlife products trafficked around the world, ivory is probably the best known. An insatiable lust for it in Southeast Asian markets makes the illegal ivory trade extremely profitable and has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants.
In addition to the high prices that elephant ivory commands, three other factors that affect poaching rates have been identified. From most to least influential, they are: the amount of corruption in a country, poverty levels in villages near elephant populations and the adequacy of law enforcement, as reported by rangers in the wildlife parks.
The recent study published in the science journal Nature Communications on May 28, 2019, by scientists from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the University of Freiburg in Germany and the University of York in the United Kingdom suggested that since the 2011 peak in poaching, the activity has been easing little by little each year, helped along by country-level ivory bans and changing attitudes toward ivory items and wildlife.
But while there was a downturn in poaching, the researchers noted, elephants are still in danger of being wiped from the continent, surviving only in small, heavily protected pockets. While elephant populations can grow at around 5 percent a year, a 4 percent poaching mortality rate is still too high for elephant numbers to be sustainable, because they can also die from natural factors, such as drought and young elephants being killed by predators.
On June 23, 2020, another study, published in the science journal Scientific Reports, concluded that while elephant poaching levels have mostly remained the same in central and western Africa, less poaching in eastern and southern Africa had made it look like poaching across the continent had declined. In other words, the elephant poaching crisis has not abated or ended, by any means.
Then, into this milieu, walked the pandemic.
The pandemic: more problems for pachyderms?
Before the coronavirus spread around the globe, tourism in Africa was on the rise. In 2018, 67 million people visited the continent, up 7 percent from the year before, according to the 2019 World Tourism Organization Report. Tourism accounts for 8.5 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), generating $194.2 billion in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
But in the pandemic, tourism—along with life as hundreds of millions of people know it—has ground to a halt across Africa. For wildlife reserves that are financed through tourism dollars, money is essentially gone. Wildlife rangers have been placed on leave or let go. Hampered security, coupled with the economic distress caused when people have no other alternative for income or meals, almost guarantees that poaching will be a problem.
Conservationists worry that the coronavirus pandemic will risk all of the gains made in decreasing elephant poaching in recent decades. There are still significant illegal markets for ivory in Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, often funneling into China. To feed those markets, poaching syndicates could well take advantage of the dip in security in elephant habitats in Africa and growing economic hardship. For example, in June 2020, a shocking mass killing of six elephants took place in one day in Ethiopia’s Mago National Park. (Ten elephants were killed across the entire east African nation in 2019). A decline in poaching will not be sustainable without a decline in poverty.
Positive outcomes: are they still possible?
It can’t be denied that over the past six to seven months as the coronavirus has traveled around the world, the unprecedented confinement of more than 4.4 billion people (over half the global population) in full or partial lockdown had some positive impacts on biodiversity and the environment. We’ve been given the opportunity to identify both the positive and negative effects of human presence and movement on the Earth in a wide range of natural systems, which could advance our understanding and practice of conservation biology.
The old “normal” was wrong. Setting aside critical ecosystems for wildlife on this planet should be a priority, in our own self-interest. Biologist E.O. Wilson’s pioneering Half-Earth theory—which posits that we should conserve “half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves”—seems wiser every day. Realization of Half-Earth would stem rising extinction rates and bring us closer to a more beautiful and complex natural world. The human-wildlife interface, across which zoonoses find their success, would be diminished in such a way as to make future zoonotic pandemics nearly impossible.
This month, on September 22, 2020, we will mark the 24th National Elephant Appreciation Day. Elephants are the very definition of charismatic megafauna. More than that, both African and Asian elephants are important engineers of savanna and forest ecosystems, and they play a vital role in attracting ecotourism and contributing to community incomes. Reducing the demand for ivory in Asia—and improving the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa—are the two biggest targets that we need to aim for in order to ensure the long-term survival of elephants.
While COVID-19 may cause some more violence against elephants, it could also be the paramount persuader for protecting them.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,