by Virginia Morell
Poachers are slaughtering elephants across Africa at an unprecedented pace. But scientists tracking the animals' carcasses—their faces and ivory hacked away—are seldom able to explain in detail what these deaths mean to the pachyderms' populations and social structure. Now, a 14-year study of elephants in northern Kenya concludes that the adult behemoths are more likely to die at the hands of humans than from natural causes. At the same time, the elephants have responded to the heavy poaching with a baby boom, providing the researchers some hope for the jumbos' survival.
"Clearly it is the most detailed and comprehensive demographic analysis undertaken for any elephant population, and perhaps any wildlife population, at least in Africa," says Norman Owen-Smith, an ecologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. It provides a base "for modeling the potential impacts of increased poaching" on other African elephant populations, which are also suffering from illegal killing.
In 1997, the scientists began a study on elephant behavior in two adjacent national reserves, Samburu and Buffalo Springs, which together measure 220 square kilometers. The parks' elephants were accustomed to vehicles and easy to study; they had also recovered from heavy poaching in the 1970s. At the beginning of the study, illegal killing was rare. "We might lose one big male a year," says George Wittemyer, a wildlife biologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and the study's lead author. "We thought the population was stable." That changed in 2009 as poachers began shooting elephants en masse. The scientists then shifted their study to look at the effects the poaching was having on the elephants they knew. More....