Threats to African elephants

The two main historical factors behind the decline of African elephants – demand for ivory and changes in land-use – still pose a serious threat to the species.

Most range states do not have adequate capacity to protect and manage their herds. If conservation action is not forthcoming, elephants may become locally extinct in some parts of Africa within 50 years.
 / ©: WWF-International
© WWF-International

Still poached for ivory and meat

In the early 1970s, demand for ivory soared and the amount of ivory leaving Africa rose to levels not seen since the start of the century. Most of the ivory leaving Africa was taken illegally and over 80% of all the raw ivory traded came from poached elephants.

This illegal trade was largely responsible for reducing the African elephant population from 3-5 million to current levels. In the 1980s, for example, an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed per year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions.

The poaching was generally well-organized and difficult to control because of the availability of automatic weapons.

Ivory ban introduced
In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned international trade in ivory to combat this massive illegal trade.

As the ban came into force in 1990, some of the major ivory markets were eliminated. As a result, some countries in Africa experienced a steep decline in illegal killing, especially where elephants were adequately protected. This allowed some elephant populations to recover.

But poaching continues
However, in countries where wildlife management authorities are chronically under-funded, poaching still appears to be a chronic, significant problem. Thriving but unmonitored domestic ivory markets continue in a number of states, some of which have few elephants of their own remaining. These markets fuel the illegal international trade.

Moreover, increasing land use pressures on elephant range (see below), declining law enforcement budgets, and continuing poaching pressure for bush meat as well as ivory, have kept illegal killing of elephants widespread in some regions.

Unequal distribution of elephants means different opinions on conservation
Considerable debate surrounds elephant conservation, largely because of the varying status of elephant populations in different range countries.

Some people, mainly in southern African countries where elephant populations are increasing, consider that a legal and controlled ivory trade could bring substantial economic benefits to Africa without jeopardizing the conservation of the species. Others are opposed to it because corruption and lack of law enforcement in some countries would make it difficult to control the trade.

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 / ©: Martin HARVEY / WWF
Forest elephant killed by poachers for tusks, Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic .
© Martin HARVEY / WWF
 / ©: WWF/CFP
Elephant tusks seized from a poacher, who was also found in possession of elephant meat and tails.

Habitat loss

While the illegal trade in ivory remains a real threat, current concern for the survival of the African elephant centres around the reduction of their habitat.

Largely unprotected range
Most elephant range still extends outside protected areas, and the rapid growth of human populations and the extension of agriculture into rangelands and forests formerly considered unsuitable for farming mean that large areas are now permanently off-limits for elephants.

Increasing conflict with people
As habitats contract and human populations expand, people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other. Where farms border elephant habitat or cross elephant migration corridors, damage to crops and villages can become commonplace, providing a source of conflict which the elephants invariably lose.

Inevitably, loss of life sometimes occurs on both sides, as people get trampled while trying to protect their livelihood, and "problem" elephants get shot by game guards.

As human populations continue to grow throughout the elephants' range, habitat loss and degradation are expected to become the major threats to elephants survival.
 / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF
African elephant herd drinking at the Khwai River in the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
© Martin Harvey / WWF
 / ©: Jo Benn / WWF
Water pump destroyed by African savanna elephant attack, Torra Conservancy, Kuene region, Namibia.
© Jo Benn / WWF

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