More than 10 million elephants roamed the forests and savannas of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. There are now fewer than 500,000 in the wild. The total remaining population of African savanna elephants decreased by nearly a third between 2007 and 2014, according to a recent survey, while African forest elephants are in even worse shape, with populations dropping 60% between 2002 and 2011.
Some elephants are killed by people who don’t want them near villages or farms (though this is less common now than in the past and may happen more frequently to Asian than to African elephants). Others are hunted so their meat can be sold. But by far, the vast majority of these creatures are killed so their ivory tusks can be cut off and sold by organised crime syndicates, usually to consumers in Asia.
And while there are plenty of reasons one might find the mass killing of incredibly intelligent animals for their tusks disturbing, a study newly published in the journal Nature Communications provides additional motivation to fight back against poaching: It makes economic sense.
Right now, poaching costs African economies about $25 million a year in lost tourism dollars — and driving creatures to extinction would make this situation even worse.
“We know that within parks, tourism suffers when elephant poaching ramps up. This work provides a first estimate of the scale of that loss, and shows pretty convincingly that stronger conservation efforts usually make sound economic sense even when looking at just this one benefit stream,” study co-author Professor Andrew Balmford, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said in a press release emailed to Business Insider.
Where the money goes
More people visit nature reserves that have more elephants, according to the analysis done by the researchers. This is especially true in Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa. In those regions, the money you’d have to spend to stop poachers is less than the return on investment you’d see from tourism dollars, according to the study.
Stopping poachers is not easy. First, poaching operations can be highly coordinated and well armed, with some poachers even killing elephants from helicopters using automatic weapons. That’s because the international ivory market is massive, dwarfing even the “tourism value” of the elephants. From 2010 to 2012, the researchers write, the value of poached elephant ivory on Chinese black markets is estimated at $597 million.
But that black market money only goes to crime syndicates, who buy ivory in places like Kenya for about $3 a kilo and sell it for more than $1,100 a kilo. The tourism value of elephants might represent less money overall, but it’s still a significant amount of money that would go to local residents instead of to organised crime.
In the forests of Central Africa, where there’s less tourism to see harder-to-spot elephants that reproduce more slowly than their savanna kin, it may cost more to stop poaching than countries would see in return from tourism. Stopping poachers in dense, hard-to-traverse regions like the Congo presents additional challenges. This means that an alternative funding mechanism to capture public attention for anti-poaching efforts there may be needed, the authors write. Still, they argue that the $25 million lost to poaching overall is a very conservative estimate at the moment, especially since it doesn’t measure how much a diverse ecosystem is worth.
Frequently, doing the thing that’s of greater global benefit is worth it. Researchers have argued that — for example — pushing to eliminate malaria is costly, but the net benefit in improved health and ability to work still comes out to be more than $200 billion from 2013 to 2035. That’s a big value, but it’s still not easy to muster the necessary political will. It seems that elephant conservation can fit into a similar bucket — hard to do, but worth it if it can be done.
“While there have always been strong moral and ethical reasons for conserving elephants, not everyone shares this viewpoint,” said Dr. Robin Naidoo, lead wildlife scientist at WWF and lead author on the study, in the press release. “Our research now shows that investing in elephant conservation is actually smart economic policy for many African countries.”
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