How could a chicken kill an elephant?

The small town of Kasane in Botswana shows Africa as it could be: a relaxed place, largely free from crime and corruption, against the backdrop of overwhelmingly beautiful nature. The Chobe River, on which Kasane lies, splits here into several flat arms and encloses swampy islands with lush vegetation. Antelopes, water buffalo and hippos graze there - and above all hundreds of elephants. They loop their trunks around tall grass, loosen their hold in the ground with a few kicks on the roots and then whip their prey through the water. This is how they wash off the soil before putting the greens in their mouths.

The population of African elephants in Chobe Park is now one of the largest in the world: 70,000 of the animals live here according to official estimates. That is about every seventh elephant in Africa; there are barely half a million left. There is multiple tragedy in these numbers. While sanctuaries like Chobe are reporting more and more animals, poachers elsewhere shoot tens of thousands of elephants every year. Illegal hunting and the ivory trade have reduced the total number of majestic creatures by two percent a year since 2010, a new analysis finds. Previously, the populations had slowly started to recover.

33,000 elephants killed

The researchers led by George Wittemyer from Colorado State University in Fort Collins selected twelve areas in Africa to extrapolate the effect of poaching (PNAS, online). This also includes Chobe Park, although there was little poaching here between 2010 and 2012: The researchers come to 353 elephants killed. In contrast, illegal hunting in the Niassa region of Mozambique and in the adjacent Selous region in Tanzania killed 15 210 animals in the same period.

In total, the scientists estimate that more than 33,000 elephants are killed every year for the whole of Africa - seven percent of the population. Offspring partially compensates for the loss, so that the number of elephants is currently falling by around 10,000 per year. Intensive protective measures are indispensable, emphasize the researchers; Countries like Botswana, Namibia and Zambia rely on military patrols and long prison terms for poachers.

In the meantime, conservationists in the west are calling for all trade in tusks and ivory products to be stopped. "We can have ivory in our homes, or elephants in Africa, but not both," said Liz Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the journal in early August Conservation Biology. A controlled, legal trade in ivory, which is discussed again and again, is an illusion, argues Bennett. In any case, bribery would lead to large quantities of poached tusks being washed clean with forged papers. By the time the international community gets a grip on corruption, the elephants will be exterminated.

In fact, the Washington Convention on Endangered Species has banned Cites from international trade in tusks since 1989. In the previous ten years, poachers had slaughtered more than half of the 1.3 million elephants in 1979. However, a debate about the tusks of naturally dead elephants quickly began. The animal welfare organization temporarily allowed some South African countries to legally sell stored ivory to Japan and China.

"Allowing these exceptions was a big mistake," says Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency: Legally traded ivory undermined the international ban and fueled a demand that was then illegally satisfied - now apparently mainly in China.

The elephants feel too comfortable in Chobe National Park

Daniel Stiles, also a designated conservationist from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which draws up the Red List of Endangered Species, sees an opportunity in legalizing trade. Only in a controlled system is it possible in the long term to dampen demand in China and to cut the enormous profits of poachers and smugglers.

First, the position of Liz Bennett and Mary Rice prevailed. In February 2014, the states of Botswana, Tanzania, Gabon and Chad decided not to sell their ivory stocks for an initial ten years. At the same time, a total of 46 countries signed a convention to stop the trade in products of endangered species and to punish crimes such as poaching, smuggling and money laundering tougher.

However, these measures increase the pressure on Botswana. According to its managers, the local Chobe National Park can only cope with 10,000 to 15,000 elephants. The traces of the many large herbivores are omnipresent: trees are dying everywhere because their bark is peeled off, the elephants trample everything on their paths. The animals cannot be relocated; in any case, they can migrate across all state borders in the region. And thinning out the herds would have drastic consequences: State hunters would have to wipe out entire family groups, because otherwise surviving animals would be traumatized and aggressive.