Wildlife

Good News for Elephants: How These Communities Reduced Poaching by 35 Percent

Aerial view of elephants at the Sarara Camp in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya's Mathews Range. Photo © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy

Here’s rare good news for African elephants: In northern Kenya, elephant poaching on community conservancies has been reduced by 35 percent since 2012.

The poaching reduction, according to a report released by Northern Rangelands Trust, occurred on 27 community wildlife conservancies in northern Kenya that protect more than 6 million acres. A recent article in the journal PLOS ONE analyzing northern Kenya conservancies suggests community-based conservation may be one of the most important ways to decrease elephant poaching.

For years, conservationists have held a deep conviction: For African wildlife to be protected, communities must benefit. Most wildlife is actually found outside national parks; community and private lands support 60% of Africa’s wildlife. Without recognizing the role communities play in conservation, efforts to protect elephants, rhinos and other species would fail.

But when communities become involved in conservation, does wildlife protection really follow? Recent reports from northern Kenya provide hopeful evidence that the answer is yes.

Elephants in Crisis

It’s no secret that African elephants face as an unprecedented crisis, as tens of thousands are poached for ivory each year. Since 1980, the elephant population has declined from 1.2 million to 430,000 as of 2015.

For some, this feels like a war on elephants, and the response has been to fight back: more enforcement, more patrols, national parks protected like fortresses. But as elephants continue to die, it’s clear that this approach is not enough.

“Elephant conservation can’t just be about guys with guns enforcing laws,” says Matt Brown, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Africa. “The community has to be involved. Community members have to benefit from wildlife.”

Many communities find themselves in frequent conflict with wildlife. Elephants trample their fields, wiping out food and income in one evening. Coexistence becomes untenable, especially when killing an elephant results in profit.

Sepengo Lendira watches cattle at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. Lewa has partnered with the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy to set up the ‘Linking Livestock Markets to Wildlife Conservation’ program. Photo © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy
Sepengo Lendira watches cattle at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. Lewa has partnered with the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy to set up the ‘Linking Livestock Markets to Wildlife Conservation’ program. Photo © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy

“Yes, there are organized bands involved in elephant poaching, but the person pulling the trigger is from the local community,” says Brown. “That is always the case. Always, always, always. Community members know who the poachers are. There needs to be an incentive so that it is worth it for those communities to keep elephants alive.”

Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a long-time partner of The Nature Conservancy, has been a leader in creating incentives for local communities. NRT has successfully established 27 community-led conservancies in northern Kenya. Each is governed by a council of elders that makes decisions about land management and investments in communities including clinics, schools and ecotourism facilities.

The main land use in the area is livestock grazing, and cattle and wildlife have grazed side by side for millennia. But recent population growth and climate change have stressed grasslands, and threaten to further human-wildlife conflict.

For four years, an effort led by The Nature Conservancy and partners has supported a Livestock to Market program which purchases cattle directly from the community and pays incentives for the sustainable management of grasslands. The program buys 10,000 cows per year from 19 conservancies, influencing the management of 1.2 million acres of land.

“The rangeland health is improving and becoming more resilient to climate change over time,” says Mike Harrison, chief executive officer of Northern Rangelands Trust.  “We are building a system that will create more grass for livestock and wildlife. The community benefits from sustainably managed grasslands.”

Samburu women make beaded products in West Gate Conservancy, Kenya. Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is focused on helping communities diversify their income. Photo © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy
Samburu women make beaded products in West Gate Conservancy, Kenya. Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is focused on helping communities diversify their income. Photo © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy

Conservationists have worked with communities to create other sources of income, including an artisanal industry in beadwork. NRT’s BeadWORKS program is providing 1,000 women access to markets and has generated more than $120,000 for local communities.

Communities Benefit, Elephants Benefit

Incomes for pastoralists have increased, providing a clear benefit for people from conservation. Recent reports show that this also translates into reduced poaching of elephants.

Conservationists often track poaching through a figure called the proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE). Basically, it is the percentage of poached elephants among all dead elephants found. Scientists consider this one of the most accurate ways of tracking poaching increases. Since 2006, PIKE numbers across the elephant’s range have spiked sharply.

On northern Kenya’s community conservancies, though, PIKE numbers have declined more than 40 percent since 2012. Northern Rangelands Trust reported an overall 35 percent decline in the number of poached elephants. These declines are greater on community conservancy lands than outside areas.

A herd of elephants cross a river at Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia, northern Kenya. Photo © 2015 Ami Vitale
A herd of elephants cross a river at Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia, northern Kenya. Photo © 2015 Ami Vitale

While this is fantastic news for conservationists, Brown cautions that community-led conservancies alone are not the sole answer.

“That would be too simplistic,” he says. “Enforcement of laws is not the only answer, but it is still important. Addressing the ivory trade and ivory buyers is important. But the decrease in elephant poaching shows that we also need communities to adequately address the poaching issue.”

And there is more to this story: these community-based conservancies don’t just result in lower incidences of elephant poaching, they also make elephants less stressed. Yes, you read that right. Community conservation is like the elephant version of yoga.

The Low-Stress Pachyderm Lifestyle

Save the Elephants, a Conservancy partner in northern Kenya, placed radio collars on 25 elephants that used Northern Rangeland Trust lands. They tracked the elephants’ movements on conservancy lands, wildlife corridors and outside areas.

Researchers found that they were able to track not only how elephants used these lands, but also how the elephants behaved.

According to a report by Save the Elephants, the animals acted quite differently when they were on community conservancy lands. They relaxed and began moving more slowly. They behaved like stress-free elephants.

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) at wells created for wildlife by Sarara Camp and Namunyak Conservancy on the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. Photo © Suzi Eszterhas
African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) at wells created for wildlife by Sarara Camp and Namunyak Conservancy on the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. Photo © Suzi Eszterhas

“When they move off conservancy lands, they’re hurried, they’re nervous,” says Brown. “It is fascinating to see elephant behavior responding to changes in management.”

People and wildlife still face challenges in northern Kenya, even on community conservancies. While the poaching rate has declined, elephants are still being poached. People still have to deal with drought and wildlife conflict. But research like this indicates that conservancies offer a hopeful future.

“Community-based conservation has to be comprehensive. It has to affect peoples’ incomes, their healthcare, their education,” says Brown. “But if you can address what the community needs, you can get people invested in conservation. And that can lead to a range of benefits for the community and for wildlife, as these recent reports demonstrate so well.”

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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20 comments

  1. This is a fantastic program. I hope it continues to expand. I wonder how the success of this program compares with that of other programs to support local rangers. At least one of the major wildlife conservation organizations has a program like this. I don’t remember which one. I think both approaches are important to support, but was just curious about the relative effectiveness of each. Thank you for all the good that you do to protect elephants and other wildlife. We need more creative and community inclusive programs like this one!

  2. What if the elephants overpopulate their range, and what if the ecotourists slack off?

    1. Good question. You are right, ecotourism revenue is unstable as it fluctuates with global issues (ebola, terror, financial crisis) and therefore, we need to diversify revenue to these local communities. The livestock program described here is key effort that addresses this concern. The program is also supported by a bead market (http://www.beadworkskenya.com/) that is becoming quite lucrative for women in these community conservancies.

  3. Great article and great work! Thank you so much for all of the great work you do. I too believe that if we look after people in elephant communities there will be less need to poach. If people are able to feed, clothe, educate and house their families, poaching will diminish. The risk of going to jail from poaching will be less if their needs are looked after. Please have a look at our web site, http://www.sendseedstoafrica.org.
    We work in Mongu and Kalabo, Western Province Zambia, an area which has very little commerce and lacks viable seed varieties to sustain the population. In this part of Zambia, 80% of the population lives in poverty, the highest level in the country. To help alleviate some of the food insecurity in the area due to these high levels of poverty, we collect non-GMO vegetable seeds in Toronto Canada, from student volunteers at a high school, Bendale B.T.I, an organic grocery store – The Big Carrot, and others. The seeds are then dried, packaged and sent to the Silozi Seed Bank in Mongu. Where they are distributed to locals for planting. In exchange, these local partners gather fallen tree seeds for the tree and fruit tree nursery that is a budding enterprise at the Silozi Seed Bank. These trees are then planted in communities by our local staff and through our voluntourism tree planting initiative. Surplus seedlings are also sold to Private Game Parks for a nominal fee to help support project activities and to reforest areas that sustain endangered Elephants. Thanks to the generous donations of our partners and volunteers, we have, so far collected, dried, packaged and sent over 4.2 million seeds.

    By recycling seeds that would have otherwise been thrown out or composted, we are implementing a self-sufficient seed bank & tree nursery that provides relevant training for year round agriculture; improves the genetic diversity of local gardens, farms and kitchens and builds resilient healthy food systems and people. We believe that providing villagers with hardier varieties of vegetable seeds, helps them earn more income and reduce food scarcity in their villages, lessening the need to poach animals and decreases the number of human elephant interactions and conflict. Further, the trees we grow and plant help to reforest communities, provide shade, are a source of food, fuel, fertilizer, and assist with controlling the erosion of the soil.
    FYI, placing chili peppers and planting lemon trees around gardens will help reduce raiding of vegetables by elephants.
    We are presently trying to establish a project to have major hotels in big cities save seeds for the underprivileged to grow community gardens. We are working with Protea Hotels in Zambia. Feel free to share and start seed collection anywhere there is a need.
    Thanks again,
    Joanne
    https://www.facebook.com/Siloziseedbanktreesforelephants/
    https://www.facebook.com/sendseedstoafrica/

  4. I’ve never seen an elephant in the flesh except in a circus or a zoo when I was a child. I don’t need to see them at all, anywhere, except in pictures, and certainly not in captivity. They don’t exist for our curiosity or amusement or entertainment. They exist to live their challenging and complex lives with each other in the wild; lives which appear to be as rich and as meaningful as ours, and a great deal less destructive and cruel. For example, they don’t come into our communities and murder us in order to satisfy their species’ greed and depravity. But it is their terrible luck to live on the same planet as humans, and I wish we would just leave them alone. Failing that, and failing it utterly, thank god then for the work of the extraordinary wildlife conservation groups and people trying to protect elephants in the wild, and to those who support their work.

  5. I am glad a solution was found for the local communities, as guides and poachers pocketed all profits and gave nothing to the community. I also was impressed that new, different sources of income were developed to expand their support. But I still believe another solution is to mount unseen monitor cameras along known elephant trails that clearly reveal the hunters and poachers, and laws passed that severely punish the offenders so that a message is sent that “it ain’t worth it.” Serious enforcement and serious penalties will certainly end the deaths of many, many elephants and rhinos. The entire continent needs to work together to make this happen. Maybe then we can see a revival of the populations. On the other end of the spectrum, the ivory trade via ports entry needs more scrutiny and serious penalties for these offenders too. As long as money is the prize, the value of live animals is annihilated.

  6. Je vois a un certain endroit des boeuf qui sont enfermé l’un contre l’autre ,pourtant il y as beaucoup de terrain autour d’eux ne croyez vous pas que l’on pourrait agrandir que ses bêtes ne souffres pas

  7. If one donates money to the Nature Conservancy for this endeavor, how much goes to administrative costs and how much goes directly to these communities to help protect these wonderful animals. Furthermore, if resources are being stressed due to climate change and tremendous population growth, how are these issues being addressed?

    1. Hi Deborah,

      Great questions! To ensure that 100% of your money is going to our elephant protection efforts, you can donate directly to our elephant fund (link below). These gifts are specifically designated for our work with local partners protecting elephants in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and go towards things like rangers’ salaries, patrol vehicles and community programs. I encourage you to read the 2015 highlights from this program (link below).

      As for climate change, we are working with these communities to develop plans for better range management to adapt to changing climate and increased drought cycles. Additionally, these conservancies create an institution where government reproductive health, education and other services can be delivered.

      Hope that helps!
      Elephant Initiative donation page: http://bit.ly/1YqwrTF
      2015 Elephant Highlights: http://bit.ly/1QxEgHP

  8. This gives me hope. Thank you for sharing the positive news and for all the Nature Conservancy does.

  9. Again , education and survival is the key here. For humans and elephants alike. I abhor what is happening to the elephants and support any method to eliminate the killing. I support the Nature Conservancy with donations as I can and congratulate you on a job well done….

  10. It is rare, if ever, that conservation organizations (any organization) discusses human population growth.
    While I am happy to hear of some successes with community conservation and rising income, is there any family planning education, birth control, and education on lower human populations being offered to various tribes in Africa?

    Projections for Africa’s human population growth this century is alarming, and without deep investment in family planning and education and birth control, the conflicts with wildlife, just the lack of space for wildlife, will intensify.

    As a lifelong environmentalist and worker rights supporter for 45 years, I have been frustrated with the steady decline of wildlife worldwide, the rising numbers of underpaid workers, wars, and resource theft, and the ignored link with those problems to the never ending rise of human population numbers.

    The U.S. is over-populated since it consumes 5x more per person than an average citizen of the world, so the U.S. consumes as if it is a nation of 1.6 Billion. So, yes, the U.S., Europe, and most developed countries also need to reduce human population, but Africa is exploding in numbers and will want to consume more resources, as will India, China, MidEast, and Indonesia, all regions of the world that have huge populations and growing.

    Why do environmental groups and worker rights groups ignore the painfully obvious (causal) connection between over-population, resource and wildlife depletion, and worker abuses?

    1. Hi Julie,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you 100%.
      In 2 projects in Tanzania, we (TNC) have partnered with Pathfinder International, a reproductive health organization, to intentionally address the source of all pressure – human population growth. Pathfinder is improving peoples choice and helping them have the healthy family they desire by assisting with spacing of children and access to reproductive health information, services and supplies.
      In Kenya, there are NGOs and government departments addressing this as well. We are seeing the Community Wildlife Conservancies as strong institutions that enable these other services (like reproductive health and education) to be delivered. Previously there was no ‘entry point’ to these people living across the landscape. The conservancy provides structure and organization – and so critical development services are now able to have more impact.

  11. I enjoyed this article – gives me some ‘joy and hope’ for these beautiful creatures that God put on our earth. I actually foster young, abandoned elephants who may have lost their mothers through poaching through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – I have a ‘herd’ now

    Thanks for sharing this