Poaching is contributing to rapid declines in elephant populations across Africa. Following high-profile changes in the political environment, the overall number of illegally killed elephants in Africa seems to be falling, but to evaluate potential conservation interventions we must understand the processes driving poaching rates at local and global scales. Here we show that annual poaching rates in 53 sites strongly correlate with proxies of ivory demand in the main Chinese markets, whereas between-country and between-site variation is strongly associated with indicators of corruption and poverty. Our analysis reveals a recent decline in annual poaching mortality rate from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to <4% in 2017. Based on these findings, we suggest that continued investment in law enforcement could further reduce poaching, but is unlikely to succeed without action that simultaneously reduces ivory demand and tackles corruption and poverty.
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