Elephants troop to a water hole at the Amboseli national reserve November 13, 2015 at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro © Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
The illegal ivory trade is devastating the population of African elephants, with an estimated 20,000-30,000 killed by poachers every year. A new study has placed a figure on the financial cost of this trade to Africa – a stunning $25 million every year.
The study, undertaken by WWF scientists at the University of Vermont and Cambridge University and published in Nature Communications, constructed financial models from elephant and visitor data across 164 areas in 25 countries. This created a “per elephant” value in terms of tourism income, which was then extrapolated to revenue.
Remarkably, this data inferred that it is more economically favourable for African countries to invest in conservation than not, as the cost is less than the loss in tourism revenue due to poaching.
"We know that within parks, tourism suffers when elephant poaching ramps up,“ says study co-author Professor Andrew Balmford from the University of Cambridge. “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."
While the moral and ethical reasons for conserving elephants against poaching are well known, ivory is still in high demand in China and elsewhere in Asia, and so provides a financial incentive for poachers. Discovering the positive rates of return on elephant conservation signals a new financial incentive for African countries to protect elephants.
"The average rate of return on elephant conservation in east, west, and south Africa compares favourably with rates of return on investments in areas like education, food security and electricity," says Dr. Brendan Fisher, economist at the University of Vermont. "For example, for every dollar invested in protecting elephants in East Africa, you get about $1.78 back. That's a great deal."
However, there were some areas in central Africa that deviated from this trend. The regions with forest-dwelling elephants, which are much harder for tourists to see, attract fewer visitors. As a result, the cost of conserving these elephants exceeds the benefits of tourism, and different mechanisms will have to be developed in order to protect them.
A new player in the Game
As highlighted in the recent Netflix release The Ivory Game (see the trailer above), African elephants are declining so rapidly they may be on course for extinction. At a current CNN estimate, there is one killed every 15 minutes.
This research provides a new angle on the crisis in suggesting that the direct effects of poaching to the elephant species should not be the only consideration when working out a strategy for conservation. Instead, researchers suggest that framing the crisis in terms of positive economic benefits could better motivate African governments and communities towards protecting elephants.