The landlocked southern African nation of Botswana has the largest elephant population on the continent. Despite this, it has long been one of the safest countries for elephants, having managed to avoid the levels of ivory poaching seen elsewhere in Africa.
However, the situation appears to be rapidly deteriorating, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology.
The authors of the study, from the conservation group Elephants Without Borders (EWB), estimate that a minimum of 385 elephants were poached in the country in just two years: 2017 and 2018. They confirm 156 were killed by poachers in 2018 alone.
In the study, the authors compared aerial surveys of a 36,000 square mile area, finding that while elephant populations had remained roughly stable—at around 123,000 individuals—the numbers of newer elephant carcasses had increased 596 percent between 2014 and 2018. This indicated an outbreak of poaching.
These carcasses tended to be clustered around five “hotspots” in the north of the country, each with an average area of around 1,350 square miles. They found that there had been a 16 percent increase of elephants poached inside the hotspots, whereas surrounding areas had witnessed a 10 percent decrease.
In the hotspots, the numbers of “old” carcasses—i.e., those that had been dead for more than a year—had increased by 78 percent between 2014 and 2018.
“To verify that poaching has been occurring, we used helicopters to visit 148 elephant carcasses and assess their cause of death,” the authors wrote. “We confirmed poaching for all 72 newer carcasses assessed. We also confirmed poaching for 62 of 76 carcasses older than 1 year, primarily in one hotspot. Poached older carcasses were all males aged 30–60 and likely killed for their large tusks.”
“The evidence suggests that ivory poaching on the scale of hundreds of elephants per year has been occurring in northern Botswana since 2017 or possibly earlier,” they said.
The latest findings could increase scrutiny on the government of Botswana, which last month lifted its five-year ban on elephant hunting, AFP reported. The country’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, said the reasoning behind the controversial move was to help control the elephant population and mitigate the damage the animals were allegedly doing to crops.
In 2018, EWB claimed that it had discovered 87 dead elephants which were likely killed at the hands of poachers. However, the government denied the claims.