The African elephant is in crisis. Across the continent, a mixture of land-use changes resulting from human population growth (expanding settlements, crop-based agriculture, fenced plots), deforestation and poaching for elephants’ highly valuable ivory is causing their populations to dwindle. The growing needs of the African human population only partially explains the shrinking elephant numbers with human development encroaching upon traditional and historic elephant rangelands, and human-elephant conflict leading to illegal killing by farmers who see elephants as pests. That, paired with the continued demand for ivory, means the illegal killing of elephants, through conflict and poaching, is at its highest level since the ban on international ivory trade was established.
An estimated population of 1.3 million elephants in 1979 fell to half that number in the mid-1980s. After the CITES trade ban in 1989, elephant populations rebounded through the early 2000s. But by 2007, a continental estimate showed the number of elephants remaining in the wild to be at an all-time low, as the resurgence in demand for ivory brought new and intense waves of poaching. By 2011, some areas of Africa reported the highest level of poaching rates ever recorded. The ban on ivory by the Chinese government by the end of 2017 has resulted in a drop in the price of ivory yet has not resulted in a parallel significant decrease in poaching according to the Wildlife Justice Commission (June 2017).
The Maasai Mara ecosystem, an extension of the vast Serengeti ecosystem, is Kenya’s most important wildlife area and tourism asset. The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is one of the last major wildlife refuges on Earth. The Tanzania portion of the ecosystem stretches 25,000 km2 through the Ngorongo Conservation, Serengeti National Park Grumeti Game Reserve. The Kenya portion covers an additional 7,000 km2 from the Maasai Mara, Loita Hills and Nyekweri Forest. Most famous for its annual migration of nearly two million wildebeest and zebra, the ecosystem is also home to an estimated 40% of Africa’s large mammal species yet covers only 0.1% of the continent’s land surface.
In the Kenya portion of the ecosystem (the Maasai Mara and surrounding areas), people and wildlife peacefully co-existed when space for both people and wildlife did not overlap. The ecosystem had a very small human population living in the area until the 1950s. As the human population has grown, the rangeland demand for livestock and farming has increased, pushing wild animals into smaller areas.
During the last century, the elephant population has greatly fluctuated in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Elephants were present in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in the 19th century (Fosbrooke, 1968). In the early part of the 20th century, they were absent from the area due to over-exploitation by ivory hunters. They were not seen again in the northern Serengeti until 1937. During the 1940s and 1950s, elephants were present in the Mara area, though in low numbers. In 1961, when the first aerial survey was done, 1,157 elephants were counted in the entire ecosystem, of which 455 elephants were in the Mara (Talbot and Stewart, 1964).
Elephant numbers continued to increase during the 1960s, and by 1970, some 729 elephants were counted in the Mara out of a total of 4,200 in the entire ecosystem. During this period, there was very little poaching, but by the late 1970s illegal killing had become such a problem that elephants retreated to within the boundaries of the Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR), managed for the people by the Narok County Council and surrounded by group ranches and conservancies. Elephants were present throughout the Reserve and adjoining areas, although human population growth and development was now encroaching on the elephants’ natural range. In the 1980s, poaching in the Serengeti began to force more elephants northward, and a 1984 survey found more elephants than expected in the Mara and fewer in the Serengeti. Elephants continued to increase in the Mara, reaching about 1,500 by 1987, and then the population seemed to stabilize.
Since 1984, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have conducted yearly or twice-yearly total elephant counts. During the 1990s, total counts revealed elephant numbers in the Reserve and dispersal areas varied between 1,031 and 1,705. Typically, 60-80% of these elephants were seen inside the MMNR and the Mara Triangle (now Mara Conservancy).
Although Kenya outlawed the hunting of elephants in 1973 and CITES established a total ban on the sale of ivory in 1989, human-elephant conflict (HEC) and illegal killing increased. The Mara numbers held relatively steady until 2010, when 3,162 were counted by a WWF funded total count. The WWF total count in 2014 revealed a marked decline to 1,488, the lowest number in 30 years.