Approximately 730 000 elephants are missing across the 73 protected areas in southern Africa, according to a new study from the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria (UP).
It is estimated that the protected areas have just a quarter of the elephants they should have, mostly due to pervasive poaching.
Now for the first time ever, there is knowledge on which areas deserve priority for elephant conservation.
The study used remote sensing of the most important resources for elephant (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 study’s lead author, Ashley Robson, said: “While the magnitude of loss due to poaching is devastating, 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 chairperson of CERU at UP, said 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,” he said.
He added that the historical trade in ivory and the renewed poaching onslaught against elephants across the continent masked the relationship between population size and environmental conditions.
According to Robson, elephants play a major role in shaping the savannas that in Africa cover as much land as the continental United States of America and Europe combined.
“Losing elephants is detrimental to our savannas 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 falls beyond protected areas. That elephants aren’t doing well, even where protected,” Robson said.