Trends in the populations of large herbivores in Niassa Reserve, Mozambique, have been monitored through biennial aerial surveys since 1998. The elephant Loxodonta africana population has been subjected to intensive illegal hunting since 2006. Researchers used a simple population model to mimic the observed trends in the numbers of live and dead elephants to demonstrate the impact of poaching. The number of fresh or recent carcasses recorded was used in the model as an index of the annual mortality rate.
A maximum likelihood analysis to compare population models revealed that the best fit to the survey estimates of both live elephants and old or very old carcasses was a model that started with 6,635 elephants in 1987. This number increased through births by 4.6% annually and decreased through deaths from natural and anthropogenic causes.
In the best-fit model, the mean mortality rate in any year was 3.2 times the observed 1 + 2 carcass ratio (ratio for carcasses in age categories 1 and 2), and carcasses remained visible for a mean of 6 years. The model suggested that c. 900 elephants were poached during 2007-2010 and another c. 1,000 during 2011.
Population estimates for live elephants and carcasses are now routine outcomes of aerial surveys conducted as part of the CITES program me for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, and our method can be applied to any population with a time series of estimates for live and dead elephants.