Has the tide turned?

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The politics of elephant conservation can be poisonous. Scientists, politicians, economists and journalists have been entrenched in their ideological divisions for many decades. Rival experts hold passionate opinions and often talk past each other. 

It’s difficult to reach consensus on even the basics. Are we making progress? How many elephants survive in Africa? Is poaching decreasing? Is the price of ivory falling? There aren’t precise answers. That’s not surprising; elephants still survive, just about, in some 37 African countries which vary wildly in geography, vegetation, history and standards of governance. The illegal international trade in ivory is secretive and adaptable.

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A report came out this month, in the journal Nature Communications, that tries to answer the big questions. It examines whether we’re over the worst of the poaching crisis, and whether China’s ivory ban has made any difference to the situation on the ground in Africa. Its headline conclusions are as follows; poaching is not as bad as it was in 2011 but elephant numbers are still falling at an unsustainable rate, while demand for ivory from China is down.

The report also examines the reasons for variations in the rate of poaching across Africa. The authors see a stronger correlation between poaching and measurements of corruption and poverty, than with ‘law enforcement adequacy’. In other words, if we want to save elephants we might achieve more results by putting money into children’s’ health and training judges than by sending more rangers out on patrol with more powerful guns. This is contentious, and not only because of the difficulty of applying accurate methodology to rather nebulous terms. In fairness to the authors, they insist that law enforcement should remain a priority.  This is not a matter of ‘either or’.  

 So what are we left with? Where the authors of this report and the EPI countries concur is that we won’t succeed in conserving Africa’s elephants if we ignore the fate of the (invariably) poor people who live alongside the animals.  The world looks very different from a village in rural Botswana or Chad as it does from the corridors of a ministry in Gaborone or N’djamena, let alone from London or California. There are overwhelming good reasons to conserve elephants, but there’s also a cost. The EPI is dedicated to standing up for those who bear the cost, just as it is determined to fight the poaching syndicates.

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