African elephant destiny is in our hands: how many are left?

The African elephant is primarily threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation and poaching

by Lorenzo Ciotti
African elephant destiny is in our hands: how many are left?

In 2016, the global population of the African bush elephant was estimated at 415 428 individuals distributed over a total area of 20 731 202 km², of which 30% is part of protected areas. 42% of the total population lives in nine Southern African countries comprising 293 447.

The largest population of Africa lives in Botswana with 131 626 individuals. In 2020-2021 due to the increase in poaching and an epidemic in the Okavango, the species was reconsidered by the IUCN as endangered. The African elephant is primarily threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation following the conversion of its natural habitat to land for cattle ranching, non-woody crop plantations, and the development of urban and industrial areas.

As a result, human-elephant conflict is on the rise. Vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa have been transformed for agricultural use and for the construction of infrastructure. This disturbance leaves elephants without a stable habitat and limits their ability to move freely.

Large corporations associated with commercial logging and mining have cleared the land, giving poachers easy access to African elephant habitat. As human development grows, the human population faces the problem of contact with elephants more frequently, due to the species' need for food and water.

Farmers residing in areas close to wild areas or reserves often come into conflict with African elephants who raid their crops.

African elephant destiny is in our hands: how many are left?

Poachers mostly target male elephants for their tusks, which leads to a skewed sex ratio and affects a population's chances of survival.

Poachers' access to unregulated black markets is facilitated by corruption and periods of civil war in some countries within the elephant's geographic range. When the international ivory trade reopened in 2006, the demand for and price of ivory increased across Asia.

In 2005, the African savannah elephant population in Zakouma National Park, Chad numbered 3,900 individuals. Within five years more than 3,200 elephants were culled. The park didn't have enough guards to fight poaching and their weapons were outdated.

Well-organized networks have facilitated the smuggling of ivory through Sudan. These cullings were related to ivory confiscations and rising prices on the local black market. About 10,370 tusks were confiscated in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Kenya and Uganda between 2007 and 2013.

Genetic analysis of some tusk samples showed that they came from wild African elephants killed in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya and Uganda. Most of the ivory was smuggled through East African countries. Elephant carcasses attract numerous scavenging animals that help rangers track the activities of poachers Between 2003 and 2015, 14,606 African elephants were reported to have been illegally killed by rangers in 29 countries in the area.

In addition to being poached, elephant carcasses are often poisoned by poachers, to prevent them from being discovered by vultures who help rangers track poachers' activity. This also endangers numerous species of scavenger birds that feed on the carcasses of large animals.

On 20 June 2019, the carcasses of 468 African white-backed griffons, 17 bald vultures, 28 pileated Egyptian vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 Cape griffons, as well as two raptor eagles, were found in northern Botswana. All of these birds are suspected to have died after eating the poisoned carcasses of three elephants in the area.