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The Fastest Way To Conservation Is Increasing Literacy

Sure, it’s good for animals to have more space and more food, but what’s really important to ensuring the survival of creatures like elephants? Making sure there is economic opportunity for the people who live near them.

New research shows that for African elephants, countries with good education preserve their animals better than countries where schools are lacking and corruption is rife but have expanded wildlife parks.

Those are the conclusions of researchers from Wageningen University, along with Kenyan and British colleagues, published in a recent article in the journal Biological Conservation. They chose to focus on the African elephant because it’s the icon of wildlife protection in Africa.

To better understand the factors that contribute to the animal’s long-term protection, a team of ecologists evaluated the numbers of elephants in different countries. They analyzed a data set of elephants across Africa and determined the relation with 19 ecological variables, including forage availability, rainfall, and water, and 15 human variables, including human density, welfare, literacy rate, and habitat fragmentation.

Although environmental factors such as the availability of food and water were obviously important, it appears that human factors—including policies, corruption, or the country’s economy—are even more important than environmental factors.

The authors write that the density of elephants in various countries "strongly correlate with conservation policy, literacy rate, corruption and economic welfare, and associate less with the availability of food or water for these animals. Our results suggest that conservation strategies should be organized in a socioeconomic context." In short, the successful conservation of large animal species could depend more on good human education, greater literacy, good governance, and less corruption than merely setting aside areas for conservation.

The study showed that the density of elephants was positively correlated with increasing literacy rate and increasing per capita gross domestic product, and decreased with increasing human density, even though the effect was small. For countries with similar vegetation, soil types, and area of parks, the density of elephants was still markedly different—showing again that social factors mattered greatly.

For elephants, bonuses paid for arrest of poachers had a significant negative effect on the number of illegally killed animals. The conservation status of an area and protection efforts are positively correlated with wildlife population trends. A population’s educational background, as measured by the literacy rate, spelled out a positive effect on the conservation status of elephants in that country.

"Our work suggests that the efficacy of conservation policies may especially improve with alleviation of poverty or improved education," write the authors. "Even at the coarse resolution of our analysis, we found many significant relationships between elephant distribution and various ecological and human factors. Such broad-scale findings have potentially high impact given the equally large-scale policies required to conserve African megafauna."