Community conservation efforts in northern Kenya reduced elephant poaching by more than a third last year

  • The African elephant population has declined from 1.2 million individuals in 1980 to just 430,000 in 2014.
  • Elephant poaching is down some 35 percent in 27 community conservancies in northern Kenya, according to a report released by Northern Rangelands Trust.
  • Experts say this empirical evidence lends even more support to the theory that community-based conservancies are particularly effective at reducing poaching.

Tens of thousands of African elephants are poached every year for their ivory, which has had a drastic impact on population numbers.

According to The Nature Conservancy, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) population declined from 1.2 million individuals in 1980 to just 430,000 in 2014.

Conservationists have long argued that, because community and private lands support 60% of Africa’s wildlife, conservation efforts must recognize the vital role of local communities in protecting elephants, rhinos and other key species.

Now, a report released by Northern Rangelands Trust, which works with 27 community-led wildlife conservancies in northern Kenya that protect more than 6 million acres, provides compelling empirical evidence that community conservation is indeed an effective means of protecting wildlife.

Since 2012, elephant poaching is down some 35 percent in the 27 community conservancies the NRT works with, the report says.

A total of 81 elephant mortality cases were recorded by NRT rangers in 2014, with 28 of them being poaching cases, Ian Craig, NRT’s director of conservation, writes in the report. There were 49 poaching cases in 2013.

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African elephant. Photo by Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy.

“A concerted effort by the Government of Kenya working in partnership with stakeholders has contributed to this reduction,” Craig writes.

Last year also saw substantial increases in the amount of ivory and weapons recovered, as well as a higher number of arrests — from 5 in 2013 to 19 in 2014 — according to the report.

A recent study published in the journal PLoS one that focused on the Laikipia-Samburu ecosystem of northern Kenya lends even more support to the theory that community-based conservancies are particularly effective at reducing poaching.

While the number of illegally killed elephants has been increasing every year since 2002, peaking at 70 percent of all recorded deaths in 2012, land use type is a more reliable indicator of poaching levels than the type of ownership, according to the PLOS ONE report.

Private ranches, for instance, which comprise just 13 percent of land area studied, hosted almost half of the total elephant population yet had significantly lower levels of poaching than any other land use type except for areas that have been officially designated as national reserves (which cover a mere 1.6 percent of elephant range).

But when it comes to communal lands, those that are set aside for wildlife conservation and managed by a local community had significantly higher numbers of elephants and lower illegal killing levels than non-designated community land, the researchers found.

“While private lands had lower illegal killing levels than community conservancies, the success of the latter relative to other community-held lands shows the importance of this model of land use for conservation,” according to the authors of the PLOS ONE report.

More government action to protect and patrol lands and enforce laws is certainly needed to curb elephant poaching once and for all, but these results prove that community conservation is an important piece of the puzzle.

“Elephant conservation can’t just be about guys with guns enforcing laws,” Matt Brown, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Africa, said in a statement. “The community has to be involved. Community members have to benefit from wildlife.”

CITATION

  • Ihwagi, F. W., Wang, T., Wittemyer, G., Skidmore, A. K., Toxopeus, A. G., Ngene, S., & Douglas-Hamilton, I. (2015). Using Poaching Levels and Elephant Distribution to Assess the Conservation Efficacy of Private, Communal and Government Land in Northern Kenya. PloS one 10(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139079
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