Elephant poaching across Africa could cost the tourism industry $25m (£20m) every year, scientists have warned. This is more than the cost associated with taking anti-poaching measures in savannas.

Two subspecies of African elephants, the larger savanna elephant and the smaller forest elephant, are both classified on the IUCN red list of threatened species as "vulnerable".

Between 2007 and 2014, there was a sharp 30% decline in African savanna elephants in 15 out of 18 countries recently surveyed, while forest elephants suffered a decline in numbers of 65% between 2002 and 2013, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Poaching is the main threat to African elephants today. Despite an international ban on ivory trade in 1989, conservationists say we entered a "second poaching crisis" in 2009 as many Asian economies have grown – thus increasing the demand for ivory.

Studies have shown that the illegal ivory trade is highly lucrative. It is estimated to bring in US$597m annually. However, little research has been done to identify the economic benefits that come with effective elephant conservation. This means that governments have little incentive to come up with tougher measures against poaching, because they believe it costs them more than it benefits the economy.

The new study, published in the journal Nature, investigates this issue to show that protecting elephants from poachers can benefit local communities, making a clear case for more rigorous anti-poaching strategies.

elephant poaching
A male savannah elephant with big tusks in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania Robin Naidoo / WWF

Modelling tourism benefits

The researchers from the World Wildlife Fund US (WWF) investigated to what extent the killing of elephants leads to economic losses linked to a reduction tourism. They wanted to show how these economic costs compare to the costs of fighting poachers.

"Tourism was something that could be feasibly quantified given the available data – ecosystem engineering, while potentially important, is very difficult to quantify given the lack of available data," Robin Naidoo, one of the paper's authors, told IBTimes UK.

The scientists came up with a model to calculate the costs of anti-poaching measures compared with the costs of poaching to the economy. Their data included average annual visits to protected areas in countries with most elephants, population estimates based on elephant database, rates of illegal killings in protected areas and average direct and indirect tourist spending.

Tsavo park
An elephant is seen at the Tsavo east national park, Kenya Tony Karumba/ AFP

They found out that the loss of elephants across Africa could cost around US$25m per year in lost tourism revenue. The model also suggests that tourists are more likely to visit protected areas when the parks contain many African elephants, with each elephant calculated to increase the number of tourist visits by 371%.

This predicted lost revenue associated with a decline of elephant-related tourism declines is substantially more significant than the costs which had been calculated in previous studies of implementing anti-poaching initiatives. However, the scientists also identify important differences between the different regions they have studied.

The benefits of elephant-related tourism do exceed the anti-poaching costs in the savanna regions of east and southern Africa, but not for forested central Africa. This is because elephants are harder to spot there, so tourism is less developed.

Kenya ivory
An elephant skeleton minus its tusks is pictured in Kora National Park in Kenya in January 2013 Ivan Lieman/AFP

What solutions?

In savannas, there is thus a clear argument for implementing tougher anti-poaching strategies. "In this respect, there are a variety of steps currently being taken, including increased enforcement and patrols, strengthening the incentives of communities to act as stewards of wildlife, and reducing demand for ivory in Asia. All three are necessary", Naidoo points out.

Such measures may be more challenging to implement in forests, so the authors recommend to really focus on local populations to make sure that they are compensated for the negative aspects of living side-by-side with the animals – making them more likely to protect them.