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Age structure as an indicator of poaching pressure: Insights from rapid assessments of elephant populations across space and time

Jones, Trevor, Cusack, Jeremy J., Pozo, Rocío A., Smit, Josephine, Mkuburo, Lameck, Baran, Paul, Lobora, Alex L., Mduma, Simon, Foley, Charles
Ecological indicators 2018 v.88 pp. 115-125
Elephantidae, adults, age structure, calves, females, harvesting, males, monitoring, national parks, rapid methods, sex ratio, space and time, surveys, wildlife, Tanzania
Detecting and monitoring illegal harvesting pressure on wild populations is challenging due to the cryptic nature of poaching activities. Although change in population age structure has been suggested as an indicator of harvesting pressure, few studies have tested its validity when based on short-term field surveys. Using data from rapid demographic assessment surveys carried out in 2009 at six sites in Tanzania, we examined whether African elephant populations experiencing contrasting levels of poaching pressure showed significant differences in their age structure, operational sex ratio (i.e. adult males to adult females), dependent individual to adult female ratio at the group level, and proportion of tuskless individuals. We also compared similar metrics between the population sampled in Ruaha National Park in 2009 and again in 2015 following a suspected increase in poaching. Elephant populations experiencing medium and high levels of poaching in 2009 were characterised by fewer calves and old individuals, a reduced number of adult males relative to adult females, and a lower ratio of calves to adult females within groups. We also found a higher proportion of tuskless individuals in poached populations (>6%). Changes in age structure in the Ruaha population between 2009 and 15 were similar to those observed across sites in 2009. Our findings are consistent with previous work documenting how the loss of older individuals – targeted for their larger tusks – decreases recruitment and survival of elephant calves. Illegal killing for ivory is a huge threat to the survival of African elephants. In this context, the present study contributes towards validating the use of age structure as an indicator of poaching pressure in elephant populations, but also in other wildlife populations where illegal offtake is targeted at specific age classes.