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Elephant poaching in East Africa

An international research team has uncovered poaching patterns in Tanzania

Freiburg, Dec 20, 2017

Elephant poaching in East Africa

Photo: Barbara Maas/NABU

An international research group analyzing data from aerial surveys of a nature reserve in East Africa has uncovered patterns of elephant poaching. The analysis shows that a few clusters of elephant cadavers were found in close proximity to three ranger posts during the height of the poaching crises from 2013 to 2015 in Tanzania. The discovery suggests a potential connection between the poachers and park rangers in several locations within the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem. “There has been suspicion for some time now that some poachers may have colluded with a handful of rangers. Our study substantiates these concerns and places them within the wider context of extremely heavy poaching at the time,“ says Severin Hauenstein from the Department of Biometry and Environmental Systems Analysis at the University of Freiburg. Hauenstein and his colleagues from the University of York in England and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) have published their findings in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

In 2009, Tanzania’s elephant population within the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem was the third largest in Africa, holding nearly 10 per cent of the global population. However, elephant poaching has driven a recent decline in African elephants, fuelled by demand for ivory products. The Ruaha-Rungwa elephant population declined from 34,500 to 20,000 between 2009 and 2013, with a further decline to 15,800 by 2015. Hauenstein and his colleagues analyzed aerial photos that captured live and dead elephants throughout the entire area for three consecutive years from 2013 to 2015.

The researchers combined the data with different environmental factors, such as the availability of food and water during the dry season and the rainy season, examined the reserve's spatial accessibility to potential poachers and measured the distance to the nearest ranger post. The data revealed elephant remains were found in greater numbers than expected close to three out of thirteen outlying ranger posts. On the other hand, a lot fewer remains were found near the park headquarters, which has a solid infrastructure and more visibility. “This kind of presence seems to have a deterrence effect on the poachers,” says Hauenstein. “In addition, we noticed that the poachers preferred to operate in the wet season – when swollen rivers meant travel by road was extremely difficult and tourism was minimal.“ Although the study results are worrying, the researchers say it cannot be assumed that there is extensive complicity: “It was most likely just a handful of people who have colluded. Ever since the poaching crises arose, the Tanzanian government has done an excellent job in educating the public about the issue.”

Original publication

Colin M. Beale, Severin Hauenstein, Simon Mduma, Howard Frederick, Trevor Jones, Claire Bracebridge, Honori Maliti, Hamza Kija, Edward M. Kohi: “Spatial analysis of aerial survey data reveals correlates of elephant carcasses within a heavily poached ecosystem”. In: Biological Conservation.


Severin Hauenstein
Department of Biometry and Environmental System Analysis
University of Freiburg
Phone: 0761/203 - 3746