Protecting African elephants and rhinos

Posted on April, 11 2011

People have had a devastating impact on African elephant and rhino numbers, but in parts of Africa we’re helping these amazing animals to recover
People have had a devastating impact on African elephant and rhino numbers, but in parts of Africa we’re helping these amazing animals to recover


That was the front page headline of the UK newspaper the Daily Mirror in 1961, accompanied by a full-page photo of two African rhinos. The article said that rhinos were “doomed to disappear from the face of the earth due to man’s folly, greed, neglect” and encouraged readers to support a new conservation organization: WWF. 

We’ve been fighting to protect African rhinos and elephants ever since.

What’s at stake?

Once, the forests and savannahs of Africa were home to more than a million rhino. Less than a hundred years ago, as many as 5 million elephants ranged across the continent.

But European game hunters shot them for trophies. Poaching was rife. Elephants were killed for the ivory, rhinos for their horns – prized as dagger handles and for their perceived medicinal properties. 

At the same time, humans destroyed large areas of their habitat, bringing communities into conflict with wildlife – particularly elephants, which can pose a threat to people’s homes and crops.

An Africa without elephants or rhinos is hard to imagine. But it’s been perilously close.

The story so far

We’ve worked with governments and communities to stop poaching, build strong new breeding populations of rhino, improve laws on elephant and rhino conservation and reduce conflict between animals and people.

During the 1980s, around 100,000 elephants were being killed each year. The ban on the international ivory trade in 1989 gave some respite from the devastation. Today we work with TRAFFIC and via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to combat illegal ivory trade.  

In southern Africa, elephant populations are now doing well, though in western and central Africa they remain especially vulnerable. Between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants survive in 37 countries.

Rhinos are also recovering in many landscapes, thanks to our anti-poaching projects and work with communities who we help benefit from conservation schemes. When we launched our African Rhino Programme in 1997, there were 8,466 white rhinos and 2,599 critically endangered black rhinos remaining in the wild. Today, numbers have doubled to around 17,400 white rhinos and 4,200 black rhinos.

Did you know?

Elephants are either left or right-tusked. The one they use more is usually smaller because of wear and tear.

Facts and stats

  • 470,000 – 690,000 – African elephants that survive in 37 countries
  • 21,660 – white and black rhinos in Africa today, thanks to the conservation work we’ve supported
  • 50 – years that we’ve been fighting for African elephants and rhinos

What next?

There’s real hope for the future of these animals. But the threats haven’t gone away.

A recent upsurge in poaching in South Africa threatens to undo our success in helping rhinos to recover. It’s been driven by a growing demand from wealthy Asian consumers, particularly in Vietnam, for medicines containing rhino horn. A total of 333 rhino were killed in South Africa in 2010 – almost one a day. Along with TRAFFIC, we’re responding by:
  • providing state-of-the-art equipment for managers of protected areas
  • working with the South African and Vietnamese governments to clamp down on illegal poaching and trade, and reduce consumer demand
  • educating and engaging the public.

The forest elephants in central Africa are seriously threatened by illegal killing and ivory trade. Weak law enforcement means illegal domestic markets for ivory continue to operate. WWF and TRAFFIC are working with partners to protect the elephants in the wild, while helping ensure that poachers and ivory traffickers are brought to justice.

The recovery of elephants in southern Africa is posing new conservation challenges, as more humans and elephants try to co-exist in increasing closeness to each other. We’re working to resolve the conflicts that can occur: in Namibia and Kenya, for example, we’re helping people benefit from living alongside elephants and rhinos through wildlife tourism.

Find out more about our work in Namibia and to prevent human-wildlife conflict.

What you can do

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


Desert black rhinoceros, South Africa.
© / Mark Carwardine / WWF
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) herd on the move. In the middle, cow elephant with exceptionally long tusks. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
© Martin Harvey / WWF
Northern White Rhino immobilised for radio telemetry, Garamba National, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Kes & Fraser Smith / WWF