In the summer of 2012, more than 100 maurauders on horseback crossed from Chad into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National park with one mission: to kill as many elephants as possible without getting caught. Using rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, they mowed down hundreds of elephants, decimating entire herds, all for one reason: ivory.

The illegal killing of elephants in Africa for their ivory takes places sometimes on a small scale, with poisoned watermelons, and other times on a large scale, using belt-fed automatic weapons. But regardless of the method, when an elephant comes into contact with a poacher, more often than not, the poacher gets what he came for. This is why between 2010 and 2012 alone, some 100,000 elephants were slaughtered. Their only “crime” that they hold the ivory that the world cannot seem to resist.

1. Background

In 1979, some 1.3 million elephants roamed wild in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa; a decade later, fewer than half that number remained. So in 1989, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) moved the elephant to its most restrictive Appendix and banned the international trade in ivory. Since then, CITES has allowed two large sales of stockpiled ivory, once in 1999 and again in 2008.

The sale in 1999 allowed three African nations—Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia—to sell a portion of their stockpiles to Japan. At the time, however, no reliable ways of tracking the impact of poaching on illegal trade existed.

The second sale, in 2008, allowed the three countries from the 1999 sale, along with South Africa, to sell more than 100 tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan and China. By then, CITES had established a program to monitor illegal killing, so the impact of the sale on poaching could be evaluated.

From the start, however, the 2008 sale was problematic. In short, it was rigged. Japanese and Chinese buyers colluded to keep prices low, with each only bidding on certain types of ivory, e.g., full tusks vs. pieces. Thus, the invory fetched an average of just USD 67 per pound. But the Chince government then resold the ivory to its buyers for upwards of USD 500 per pound. Because of this, the price of ivory exploded and poaching became a much more lucrative activity.

The sale proved catastrophic for African elephant populations (Hsiang & Sekar, 2016). According to a report by the National Geographic Society, “the future of the African elephant may forever be clouded by the moment when CITES, lacking the data to evaluate the impact of its first ivory sale, endorsed a second” (Christy, 2012). Indeed, following the 2008 sale, the production of illegal ivory through poaching increased by 66% and ivory seizures from Africa increased by about 71% (Kelly, 2016). Current estimates of illegal killing are between 30,000 and 40,000 per year, or about one every 15 minutes.

2. Methods and Data

This project seeks to understand the socio-economic factors that may contribute to poaching. It is crucial for us to understand these contributing factors so that they may be remedied, thus allowing for the continuation of elephants in the wild. For it has been estimated that, at the current rate of killing, all elephants in the wild will be gone within 10 years.

Several researchers have studied the problem, and their findings will be taken into account in the model. For instance, Lemieux and Clark (2009) studied the effect of regulated and unregulated markets and showed that the presence of unregulated markets, either in-country or in a bordering country, had a significant impact on poaching activity.

The initial dataset included socio-economic and governance data on 34 countries with elephant populations in Central, Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa. These data came from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Unesco Institute for Statistics, The World Bank, and Transparency International (see the codebook for specifics). Information regarding regulated and unregulated ivory markets in Africa came from Lemieux and Clark (2009), and conflict data came from the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme (UCDP). Data concerning elephant populations and poaching came from the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program of CITES.

The inital dataset contained 50 variables and 476 observations. Due to missing values in the dependent variable, the number of observations was reduced to 301 total observations. Moreover, a correlation plot was created (Figure 2.1) and revealed a number of variables correlated at a threshold above 0.8. Linear regression was performed on correlated pairs to determine which had a greater impact on the dependent variable. A total of 16 variables were removed, leaving a total of 33.

Together, these data will allow a comprehensive assessment of one side of the poaching equation, namely, conditions in Africa that may contribute to illegal elephant killing. What these data do not address is the demand side of the equation. That is, we do not have the benefit of trafficking and sales data whereby illegal ivory is transmitted and sold to consumers, largely in Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Unfortunately such data is not readily accessible and gathering such data would be beyond the scope of this project.

The data were divided into training and test sets prior to imputation of missing values. Due to the limited number of observations relative to the number of variables, it was necessary to create a 60:40 split. Higher ratios of training set size to test set size were attempted, but imputation failed in those cases.

Figure 2.1.1: Correlation plot of variables