Human well-being is associated with reduced elephant poaching

Illegal killing for ivory continues to threaten African elephants. Parks like Garamba in the DRC and Selous in Tanzania have suffered significant poaching in the past, with rangers detecting hundreds of dead elephants in just a few years. Yet reserves like Etosha in Namibia and Chobe in Botswana have been targeted less. In a paper published today, Tim Kuiper and colleagues investigated why poaching rates vary so widely across African countries, and what this might tell us about what drivers, motivates and facilitates poaching. This research was funded by the CITES Secretariat and was carried out in collaboration with the CITES Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants Technical Advisory Group, several of whom were co-authors on the paper.

A black and white photo of a herd of african elephants

Why poaching matters

The illegal wildlife trade is one of the highest value illicit trade sectors globally, with thousands of wildlife species worth billions of dollars’ poached, trafficked and sold annually. This is a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems, which are the bedrock of human well-being as the recent multi-national UN Biodiversity Conference made clear.

African elephant populations have experienced significant declines (~30%) since 2006 due to consistently high rates of illegal killing (poaching). Apart from the loss of a culturally significant icon, elephant poaching results in lost tourism revenues for African countries, threatens the demonstrated role of elephants in healthy ecosystems, and results in both poachers and rangers losing their lives in a violent “biodiversity war”. When elephants lose, we lose.

Rangers collect poaching data across 30 African countries

The research team developed an empirical model relating key local to global socio-economic data to 19 years of data on 10,286 illegally killed elephants detected at 64 sites in 30 African countries (2002-2020) from 64 sites in 30 African countries. These data were collected mostly by wildlife rangers - several of whom are co-authors on the paper - as part of the global programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) funded by the CITES Secretariat.

For example, they hypothesised that armed conflicts may create an environment where poaching can thrive and collated geo-referenced data on armed conflict intensity (total battle deaths) in the vicinity of monitored elephant populations. They also used a newly collated global dataset on 3012 raw elephant ivory price samples as a proxy for changes in the demand for ivory over time.

Reduced elephant poaching associated with human well-being, low corruption, strong law enforcement, and lower ivory prices

They found evidence to suggest that poaching is limited where there is strong national governance quality (using the World Bank’s governance indicators), higher levels of local human development, stronger site-level law enforcement, and reduced global ivory prices. They also found that forest elephant populations tended to suffer higher rates of illegal killing than savannah elephants. 

A key finding was that higher levels of local human well-being was associated with lower poaching. In areas of economic deprivation, local residents may participate in illegal killing to meet their basic needs or earn extra income, in the absence of viable alternatives. Another interpretation might be that criminal ivory syndicates seeking to recruit local hunters target these areas because they are able to operate more effectively.

Deeper research into these associations at particular sites will help to see what underlying processes are at play, and better understand cause and effect. Furthermore, they could not test many plausible drivers of poaching due to a lack of comparable site-level data on things like changes in local political will, influxes of conservation funding, or socio-economic shocks. 

Solutions to a problem that transcends biodiversity conservation

Lead author, Timothy Kuiper, said:

Our research advances our empirical understanding of the underlying drivers of the global illegal wildlife trade. Results suggest that tackling poaching likely requires dealing with wider systemic challenges of human development, corruption, and consumer demand.

The upshot is that a lot of what seems to drive and facilitate elephant poaching is beyond the remit or control of traditional biodiversity conservation actors (like government wildlife departments or environmental NGOs). The plus side of this is that wider societal action to promote human well-being and accountable governments will likely deliver co-benefits for elephants and biodiversity at large.

Ivonne Higuero, the Secretary General of the CITES Secretariat, said:

“I believe that the work of the Secretariat on mobilizing finance for African Elephant conservation, including the development of innovative financial mechanisms, is useful for the discussions on how to provide positive incentives for wildlife conservation by local communities.”

To read more about this research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, visit: