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Africa's protected areas have only a quarter of the elephants they should

A new study from the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria provides an estimate of the number of elephants that should be present in 73 protected areas spanning 21 African countries.

Based on recent counts, three-quarters of the elephants or around 730 000 animals, are missing from these protected areas. One third of protected areas contain fewer than 5% of the elephants they should. The most common cause of this is pervasive poaching. However, for the first time, we know which areas should be prioritised for the conservation of elephants.

The current study was recently published in PLOS ONE and made use of remote sensing of the most important resources for elephants (vegetation and water), poaching data, and the largest population database for any mammal species to model the density at which individual populations should stabilise.

The lead author of the study, Ashley Robson, says, 'In the past, we’ve had relatively good estimates of how many elephants there are and how many are poached. But now, we’ve determined how many elephants there should be in the first place. While the magnitude of loss due to poaching is devastating—730 000 elephants are missing across the 73 protected areas assessed—I don’t see our work as more doom and gloom. On the contrary, we provide ecologically meaningful goals for elephant conservationists to work toward. It’s a positive step for elephants.'

Rudi van Aarde, supervisor of the project and Chair of CERU at the University of Pretoria says, 'Elephants thrive in a huge variety of conditions—from deserts to lush forests, so elephant density varies according to local resources. There is no single ideal elephant density. Ecologists have known this for a long time, but it’s never been quantified until now. Improved remote sensing, decades of count data, and a huge effort from my research team have enabled us to estimate benchmarks for elephant populations. The current study is the culmination of a decade of work.'

'The historical trade in ivory and the renewed poaching onslaught influenced elephants across the continent and masked the relationship between population size and environmental conditions,' Van Aarde says. 'But we’ve accounted for the impact of poaching in our models to predict ecological benchmarks—the size populations would reach if environmental factors rather than human influence controlled population growth. This has been a hotly debated question, especially here in southern Africa.'

According to Robson, 'Everyone with an interest in conservation—protected area managers, policy-makers, international funders, and the public—should consider our study. We’ve made it possible to target resources to the protected areas that have the greatest need. Of course, this isn’t just for the sake of elephants; elephants play a major role in shaping the savannahs that in Africa cover as much land as the USA and continental Europe combined. Losing elephants is detrimental to our savannahs and the species that rely on them.'

'While the conservation targets are a positive step, our study is a wake-up call. Around 70% of the current distributional range of African elephants fall beyond protected areas. That elephants aren’t doing well, even where protected, means we need to take action,' Robson says.

Robson and Van Aarde co-authored the study with Morgan Trimble, environmental writer and CERU PhD graduate, Andrew Purdon, CERU research assistant, Kim Young-Overton, CERU PhD graduate and former post-doctoral fellow, and Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.


This study was funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the National Research Foundation and the University of Pretoria.


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