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Botswana’s Elephants Face a New Poaching Threat

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Kasane, Botswana – Research by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) published 13 June in the journal Current Biology describes a new outbreak of elephant poaching for ivory in northern Botswana. They report that poachers killed an estimated 385 elephants in one year prior to EWB’s 2018 aerial survey. The paper includes photographic documentation of 156 poached elephant carcasses.

Botswana holds one-third of Africa’s remaining savanna elephants making it critical for elephant conservation. EWB’s aerial surveys in 2014 and 2018 revealed a stable elephant population, with approximately 126,000 elephants. But numbers of elephant carcasses increased by 21% from 2014-2018. Numbers of “recent” carcasses, less than one year since death, increased by 593% over that time.

To learn why carcass numbers increased, researchers used helicopters to visit 148 elephant carcasses and determine the cause of death. All recent carcasses, dead for less than one year, examined had been killed by poachers. Evidence of poaching was clear: skulls were essentially chopped in half with an axe to remove tusks, and most carcasses were covered with brush to hide them. Some poached elephants had cut marks on their spines where poachers tried to paralyze a wounded animal before taking the tusks.

In 2018, recent carcasses were clustered in five “hotspots.” In just one hotspot, the research team counted 88 poached elephants. From 2014-2018, elephant populations declined by 16% in the hotspots. Outside the hotspots, however, elephant populations actually increased by 10%. Elephants may be fleeing the hotspots for safer territory.

EWB also visited “old” carcasses in poaching hotspots, where elephant carcasses were clustered. These were likely dead for more than one year, but evidence of poaching was still obvious, as skulls chopped by poachers remained obvious. Of the 76 old carcasses visited, 62 (82%) were poached.

Dr. Michael Chase, the founder and director of EWB who led the aerial survey, said ‘the evidence in this paper is indisputable and supports our warning that elephant bulls are being killed by poaching gangs; we need to stop them before they become bolder.’

All poached elephants examined in the study were bulls, and most were aged 30-60 years. Poachers appearto be targeting these elephants for their large tusks. The ivory from a mature bull’s tusks may be worththousands of dollars on the black market.

‘EWB is making all of the evidence of elephant poaching public with this paper, including hundreds of photographs of elephant carcasses and our carcass survey data,’ said EWB’s lead analyst Dr. Scott Schlossberg. ‘We want to be transparent so that people can see for themselves what is happening in Botswana now.’

EWB conducted aerial surveys over 94,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) of prime elephant habitat in northern Botswana in 2014 and 2018. The two surveys entailed flying 61,800 kilometers (38,400 miles) while counting elephants and carcasses. Researchers flew thousands more kilometers in helicopters to visit carcasses.

Elsewhere in Africa, increases in elephant poaching similar to what is happening in Botswana have been followed by major reductions in elephant numbers as poaching devastates populations. The new poaching may be an early-warning sign that Botswana’s elephant population will be at greater risk in the near future.Poachers have already killed large numbers of elephants nearby in Angola and Zambia.

In Botswana, most of the poaching appears to be happening in just five hotspots. Those areas should be focal points for anti-poaching efforts and enhanced monitoring of elephant populations. Dr. Chase said, ‘I am confident that all stakeholders can work together to implement necessary measures to curtail poaching. In the end, Botswana will be judged not for having a poaching problem but for how it deals with it.’

EWB have shared their findings with the Botswana Government to aid law enforcement efforts in the affected areas.

Notes to editor:

1. Research article:
Current Biology, Schlossberg et al.: “Evidence of a Growing Elephant Poaching Problem in Botswana.”
https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30675-X
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.061
Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article.

Contact: Michael Chase (+267 6250202, er@info.bw) or
Scott Schlossberg (+1 812 3453917, xanthocephalus@gmail.com) Elephants Without Borders
Until 11:00 AM ET (US), 13 June 2019 (17:00 CAT, 13 June)

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