Population & distribution
African elephants once roamed across most of the continent from the northern Mediterranean coast to the southern tip. But they are now confined to a much smaller range.
Savannah elephants occur in eastern and southern Africa, with the highest densities found in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. The forest elephant is found in the equatorial rainforest zone of west and central Africa, where relatively large blocks of dense forest still remain.
Since 1979, African elephants have lost over 50% of their range and this, along with massive poaching for ivory and trophies over the decades, has seen the population drop significantly.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, there may have been as many as 3-5 million African elephants. But there are now around 415,000.
Most countries in West Africa count their forest elephants in tens or hundreds, with animals scattered in small blocks of isolated forest. In contrast, savannah elephant populations in parts of southern Africa are large and expanding, with almost 300,000 elephants now roaming across the sub-region.
Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas. However, less than 20% of African elephant habitat is under formal protection.
Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers. Their ivory tusks are the most sought after, but their meat and skin are also traded. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewellery – China is the biggest consumer market for such products.
The ban in international trade was introduced in 1989 by CITES
(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and it allowed some populations to recover, especially where elephants were adequately protected.
But there has been an upsurge in poaching in recent years, which has led to steep declines in forest elephant numbers and some savannah elephant populations.
Thriving but unmonitored domestic ivory markets continue in a number of states, some of which have few elephants of their own remaining. Insufficient anti-poaching capacity, weak law enforcement and corruption compound the problem in some countries.
Meanwhile, as the human population expands, more land is being converted to agriculture. So elephant habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented.
This means elephants and people come into contact more often, and conflicts occur. Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods – and may even kill people. Elephants are sometimes killed in retaliation.
With human populations continuing to grow across their range, habitat loss and degradation will remain major threats to elephants' survival.