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Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve marks a year without losing a single elephant to ivory poaching.

Elephant Poaching Statistics 

Half a decade ago, with rising demand for ivory in the world market, poachers ran amok in Niassa Reserve killing thousands of elephants. In 2009, over 15,000 elephants had roamed free in the reserve that spans over 42,000 sq km–an area larger than Taiwan–in a remote part of northern Mozambique. But 70% of them were killed by 2015 as the rampant poaching went unchecked.

Life for the remaining 4500 elephants continued to be dotted by serious threats despite the national government introducing new anti poaching measures. 200 more elephants were killed in the following two years.

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But a new collaborative approach taken by the government and conservationists brought the poaching death toll down to zero in the last 12 months.

How to stop elephant poaching?

The Mozambique government teamed up with two conservation groups–the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Niassa Conservation Alliance–to implement a well-coordinated anti-poaching strategy last year. The plan included aerial surveillance and deployment of a newly formed rapid-intervention police force capable of being quickly dispatched to remote poaching locations in the wilderness, in areas where poachers previously roamed unhindered by the law.

Year-round air surveillance relied on a Cessna aircraft and a helicopter. Air patrols were further strengthened during the wet summer season–a period running from December 2018 to May 2019–when the elephants were most vulnerable to poaching.

Unlike the reserve’s normal rangers, the new rapid-intervention police force was better armed and was empowered to arrest suspected poachers. The force’s ability to immediately arrest the poachers made a real impact. They processed each case within 72 hours and submitted it to the local prosecutor. Meanwhile, the government fast-tracked the cases in the court and prosecuted a number of suspects under the revised conservation law.

The government also invested more in improving Niassa’s radio communication system leading to better coordination between surveillance and enforcement teams. Besides stopping every single poacher from entering into the nature reserve, the police also cleared a number of illegal mining and fishing camps within the boundary.

Anti-poaching measures by various African nations together with an ivory trade ban by countries including China, have significantly reduced the threats African elephants face. A recent study finds that African elephant poaching rates have dropped by 60% in the last six years. The annual poaching mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 10% in 2011 to less than 4% in 2017. Yet the rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate. Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from an estimated few million around 1900 to a little more than 400,000, according to a survey. The recovery of elephant populations will require as much as 90 years even if poaching were to be completely eradicated from Africa tomorrow. Gaps in policy and enforcement, coupled with corruption, and sluggishness on behalf of most local governments are still major challenges that hinder conservation efforts of elephants in the continent. 

 

A group of researchers from the Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka, have suggested the construction of electric fences around human villages to save the lives of humans and elephants in the country.

Analysing the first country-wide survey on the habitats of elephants and their conflicts with humans, they say this new conservation approach model of erecting electric fences would work better than confining the animals in a specific area.

Human-elephant conflicts kill more than 250 elephants and 70 humans in Sri Lanka annually. Adult male elephants entering human habitat to feed on farm crops sets up the stage for the deadly battle between two species.

The increasing fatality from these clashes sounds the death knell of the Asian elephants that are already categorised as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Since the 1950s the approach to human-elephant conflict mitigation in the country has been based around confinement of elephants in protected areas. The animals are chased away into these areas using light flares, thunder crackers and sometimes even shotguns.

These attempts rarely succeed. The scarcity of resources in the protected areas due overpopulation of Elephants compels them to venture into human villages to seek food.  

The research

The researchers headed by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando divided the country into 2,742 grid cells, each covering an area of 25 sq km. Three residents living within each grid cell were asked to report on the presence of elephants and the severity of human-elephant conflicts.

They opted for a questionnaire-based approach rather than methods based on direct sightings. Elephants, despite their large size, are difficult to be tracked in the wild. Asian elephants tend to reside in low visibility habitats like scrub and secondary forests. They only venture out to the open during the night. They also occupy a large home range of hundreds of sq km frequently crisscrossing long distances at a stretch.

The result of the collected data was later visualised into an elephant distribution map with highlights of key areas for intervention.

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(a) Elephant presence, by herds and males; cells without resident people are coloured green. (b) Elephant presence and absence overlaid with the GPS locations of 54 elephants tracked during 2004–2018. (c) Spatio-temporal patterns of cell use by elephant herds and males (Fig. 2). (d) Severity of human–elephant conflict.

The result showed that Asian elephants inhabit 60% of Sri Lanka’s land, and more than half of their habitat coincides with human habitats. The majority, over 56% of residents, who reported the presence of elephants, had experienced major human-elephant conflicts. 23% of people faced moderate conflicts. Only 7% of residents reported having not experienced any conflicts. The study also revealed that the elephants have lost 16% of their range since 1960.

The researchers recommend a human-elephant coexistence model that promotes stakeholder awareness and mitigates conflict by protecting villages with barriers like electric fences. They say the distribution map they prepared can serve as a template for identifying areas where conflict mitigation needs to be integrated.

“If this approach is incorporated into the National Policy for Elephant Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka, it would facilitate human-elephant co-existence.” says the lead researcher Dr. Fernando. “It would also result in the reduction of human-elephant conflict.”

 

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