I read it on the internet- so it must be true

By Brendan Moyle 07/05/2015

Isn’t the internet wonderful?  You can find all sorts of information from the comfort of a keyboard.  I have been assured many extraordinary things are true, because someone found them on the internet.  Homeopathy works, vaccines don’t, Noah’s Ark has been found again for real. But it isn’t just those fond of wild-conspiracies that can conjure facts up.

Here’s one that is oddly familiar, from twitter. Elephant poaching is a tragedy, and it is traumatic for the survivors.  But then we see the “elephants are facing imminent extinction” claim. We know elephant populations are in trouble, but we are a long way off them becoming extinct in less than 15 years.

elephant extinction


The IUCN in 2013, based on the best scientific evidence available, concluded that a 20% drop in the population of the African species was likely in the next decade. Not 100%, but 20%.  This isn’t hidden away in any obscure academic journal. These estimates are widely available in international reports by reputable scientific organisations, and are provided in press releases.

If we examine the actual trend in poaching, using the latest MIKE site monitoring data, then the trend has mostly been decreasing since 2011.  This monitoring system compares the legal deaths (natural mortality etc) to illegal to determine poaching intensities. If the proportion of poached elephants is less than 0.5, then poaching is sustainable. That is, elephant populations will still be stable or growing, all else equal.

PIKE data on poaching rates of African Elephants


At the moment, poaching is still unsustainable. It is still a concern. But we’re not at the peak killing years anymore. We haven’t actually, been wringing our hands since 2011, doing nothing to reduce this poaching.  There’s been a marked increase in enforcement in response.

There is only one way we can jump from a 20% decline, close to the 100% required for extinction. That is to naively assume, that elephants don’t reproduce. If the entire population of African elephants was sterile, then poaching would cause savage declines in the population.  But they’re not. There’s a baby elephant in that photo. With a continental population of about 500,000 elephants, there’s an extra 20-25,000 new elephants being added to the population every year.

Nobody begrudges the efforts of others to increase awareness of elephant-poaching. But exaggerating the threat is not helpful. It encourages hasty policy-making on the fly, rather than evidence-based and well thought out responses.