Botswana has elephant poaching problem, not overpopulation – Study

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The Botswana government has recently reintroduced trophy hunting after a five-year moratorium. It did so on the pretext that the country has “too many elephants”. But a new academic paper shows that this argument doesn’t hold.

The researchers compared the results of two aerial surveys in northern Botswana. The first was conducted in 2014, the second in 2018. Both were conducted during the dry season. This allowed for easy detection of changes over time.

A 94,000km2 area was studied and the elephant population estimated at 122,700 in 2018. This was roughly similar to the 2014 numbers.

But comparing results from the 2014 and 2018 aerial surveys, the scientists found that the numbers of elephant carcasses have increased. Populations can remain stable despite increased carcass counts because of new births and immigration from other range states.

Carcasses suspected to be of poaching were physically checked. Evidence of skull hacking and attempts to cover tracks were clear. The elephants were killed in clusters, suggesting poaching hot-spots.

The paper has been published amid a fierce debate about the future of Botswana’s preferred conservation model. Restoring trophy hunting rights is likely to amplify the poaching problem rather than solve it.

Trophy hunting and poaching both target large bulls with big tusks. Hunting may therefore create an additive effect to poaching, leading to exponential decline of the rare genetics carried by “big tuskers”.

The findings

Elephant population health and its future prospects are partially determined by carcass ratios. This is the number of carcasses divided by the sum of carcasses plus live elephants. If the carcass ratio is high, it might indicate a population in decline. “Fresh” carcasses indicate death within a year of the survey, whereas old carcasses indicate death more than a year prior. “Very old” carcasses belong to elephants who died more than ten years before the survey.

The estimated overall carcass count increased by 21% between 2014 and 2018. The combined fresh and recent number increased by 593% over the same time.

A number of factors could affect carcass ratios. These include drought, disease, poaching and excessive hunting.

One of the signs that poaching is responsible for animal deaths is if they occur in clusters. The survey identified clustering effects in the 2018 survey that were not present in the 2014 survey.