African Elephants Declining Rapidly

Dear EarthTalk: How are populations of African elephants faring these days? What conservation efforts are underway and are they working?

— Libby Broullette, Salem, MA

A century ago some five millions wild elephants roamed Africa. Today fewer than 500,000 remain, a result of poaching for meat and ivory as well as habitat loss due to expanding human development. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1990 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed some populations to recover briefly, but a recent resurgence in illegal poaching means the iconic species is still in hot water.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported recently that African elephants are “under severe threat” with double the number killed and triple the amount of ivory seized in recent years over previous decades. And the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the international “Red List of Threatened Species,” categorizes African elephants as “vulnerable” and warns that conservation initiatives are not working to stem declining population numbers.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), poachers kill tens of thousands of African elephants each year to meet the growing demand for ivory products across the Far East. “Asia stands behind a steadily increasing trend in illegal ivory and there are still thriving domestic ivory markets in Africa,” says WWF.

In addition to the demand for ivory, war and natural resource exploitation across Africa contribute to poaching as increasingly larger numbers of hungry people turn to wild elephant meat as a source of food. WWF reports that limited resources, along with the remoteness and inaccessibility of so much elephant habitat, make it difficult for governments and agencies to monitor and protect elephant herds.

Beyond poaching, habitat loss looms larger and larger over Africa’s diverse fauna, especially elephants as they require large ranges and dine on copious amounts of tree and plant life. “African elephants’ natural habitat is also shrinking as human populations grow and forest and savannas are cleared for infrastructure development and agriculture,” says WWF. Researchers estimate that elephants’ range across Africa has been reduced from three million to just one million square miles in the last three decades.

“Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers,” adds WWF. “In addition, extensive logging of forests leaves elephants with a very limited food supply, which results in high levels of human-elephant conflict when hungry elephants enter villages and destroy local farmers’ crops.”

In 2011, U.S. Congress reauthorized the long dormant African Elephant Conservation Act, putting $1.7 million into rescue efforts. Green groups raised another $3.6 million and now 29 on-the-ground projects are working to help restore elephant herds across Africa. Efforts include promoting partnerships between African and Far East wildlife and law enforcement agencies to detect and intercept illegally trafficked wildlife and improve prosecution rates, installing radio networks to improve communication between wildlife protection personnel, and aerial surveillance to rapidly detect and respond to poaching. Let’s just hope efforts like these will bear fruit in the face of rapidly continuing habitat loss.