This story is over 5 years old.


Elephant Poaching Is Costing African Countries $25 Million Every Year

Tourists can't pay to see elephants if there are no elephants left.
Image: Save-Elephants/Wikimedia

With other pressing developmental problems, it's difficult for many African governments to justify the costs of ramping up the fight against elephant poaching. But a new study published in the journal Nature Communications might give them a good financial reason.

Elephants are a big draw to parks across Africa, so as their numbers dwindle, so too do the numbers of tourists coming to see them. The first continent-wide assessment of poaching's effects on tourism reveal that the annual killing of elephants results in a $25 million loss in tourism revenue across Africa. What's more, this lost revenue is significantly higher than the cost of combating poaching, making it economically favorable to invest in the protection of elephants.


Every year some 20,000 to 30,000 elephants are slaughtered for their ivory tusks to feed a demand for Chinese and Southeast Asian markets, despite a commercial ban on the trade of ivory. Elephant populations across the continent have fallen up to 60 percent.

The ivory is used mainly to make trinkets, albeit of very high value. A single carved tusk in China can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Worse still, the high price tag on elephant tusks has drawn in the attention of highly organized crime syndicates, as well as militant groups who have turned to poaching to fund their various violent causes.

Despite these national and international security concerns, funneling money into policing illegal wildlife trade is a hard sell when many of the countries where the killings occur have other serious humanitarian problems that need addressing like food security and access to clean drinking water, among others.

So researchers from World Wildlife Fund, Cambridge University, and the University of Vermont, conducted an economic analysis to try and find out just exactly what the economic benefit would have been if the 20,000 to 30,000 elephants killed each year were kept alive.

"For every dollar invested in protecting elephants in East Africa, you get about $1.78 back."

They did this by checking the declines in tourist visits to elephant abundant parks across Africa that have been particularly hard hit by illegal hunting.. When compared to the estimated cost of stabilizing elephant populations ($9.6 million) in East, West and Southern Africa, the return on investment is enormously positive.

Brendan Fisher, economist and co-author of the study from the University of Vermont said in a statement that the "Return on elephant conservation in East, West, and South Africa compares favorably with rates of return on investments in areas like education, food security and electricity," adding, "for every dollar invested in protecting elephants in East Africa, you get about $1.78 back. That's a great deal."

The economic returns in the forested areas of Central Africa, however, were hugely negative. The parks there see much less tourist visitation, largely due to poor visibility of the dense jungle environments compared to the wide open savannah of East and Southern Africa. Security concerns outside of poaching might also play a part. The Eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, has been in a near constant state of conflict for over a decade. Regardless, the forest elephant losses there have been catastrophic.

The black market profit in China from ivory taken off of poached African elephants, however, smothers any economic gain from wildlife tourism. Between 2010-2012, Illegal ivory in China was worth $597 million annually. Very few Africans see any of that profit though, whereas eco-tourism affects a much broader range of people throughout many countries in Africa.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.