Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wildlife
Population and Distribution of African Elephants
Elephants are proboscideans belonging to the family Elephantidae. Today, there are three living elephant species: the African savanna elephant (sometimes called the African bush elephant; Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Although elephants in Africa used to be considered as one species—the African elephant—they are now generally considered as two distinct species, reflecting accumulated scientific knowledge. Those living in the forests of Central and Western Africa are African forest elephants, while those in other parts of the continent are African savanna elephants. Asian elephants are generally smaller than these African species and live in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Elephants are herbivores that eat a lot of plants. Depending on the habitat and body size, a wild adult may consume 100-200 kg of vegetation per day.
The status of elephant population and distribution varies between species and/or regions. This is the case for their extinction risk as well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List) lists the Asian elephant as Endangered (EN). (Please see Footnote (1) for further details about the extinction risk categories used in the IUCN Red List.) The African elephant, that is, the single species, had been listed as Vulnerable (VU) until the release of the latest version in March 2021. In this version, the species is split in two, and the African savanna elephant is listed as Endangered (EN) while the African forest elephant is listed as Critically Endangered (CR). Both species were assessed based on the overall rate of modelled population decline at the continental level (following Criterion A, which looks at population decline that is independent of actual population size and distribution area). (Please see Footnote (2) (A) for the details of risk assessments.)
According to the African Elephant Status Report 2016 by IUCN (please see Footnote (2) (B)), which treats elephants in Africa as a single species (the African elephant), the total number of elephants on the African continent was estimated to be around 415,000 as of 2015, and more than 70% of these elephants were estimated to be living in Southern Africa, where only African savanna elephants occur. These populations of Southern Africa, more specifically, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are included in the CITES Appendix II (which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction right now, but could face greater risks unless international trade is restricted and therefore are available for international trade only when permitted).
Poaching, along with increasing habitat loss and fragmentation caused by land use change, is mentioned as one of the primary causes threatening the survival of African savanna elephants and African forest elephants, as described below, according to the assessment in the IUCN Red List.
Threats to the African Savanna Elephant*(2)(A)
“Poaching of African Savanna Elephants for ivory is a major cause of individual death and population decline (Wittemyer et al. 2014, Thouless et al. 2016). After a sustained period of intense poaching between the late 1970s and 1989, many African Savanna Elephant populations (e.g., in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda) experienced two to three decades of recovery. Some northern African Savanna Elephant populations, however, experienced persistent poaching pressure through the last three decades (Bouche et al. 2011, 2012). Data collected as a part of the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants programme (MIKE), indicate that poaching significantly intensified across the continent starting in 2008 and peaking in 2011 – an unsustainably high level of poaching has continued into current times in some areas of the continent (CITES 2018, 2019), and may be increasing in some of the historically less-affected southern African populations (CITES 2018, 2019). Rapid land use change by humans is driving the direct loss and fragmentation of habitat for African Savanna Elephants and is an increasing threat to populations across their range (Thouless et al. 2016, Mpakairi et al. 2019). Land conversion is a product of the ongoing expansion of the human population and associated agriculture and infrastructure development, which in turn are driven by economic and technological advances. A manifestation of this trend is the reported increase in human-elephant conflict (e.g., Pozo et al. 2018). Human population growth projections suggest land conversion will accelerate rapidly in the coming decades across Africa (see https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/) which will likely increase this threat.”
Threats to the African Forest Elephant*(2)(A)
“Poaching for ivory is currently the principal cause of death of African Forest Elephants (Wittemyer et al. 2014, Thouless et al. 2016) with persistent poaching pressure at many sites evident from their first surveys in the 1970s to the present day (Douglas-Hamilton 1989, Barnes et al. 1993, Maisels et al. 2013). Data collected as a part of the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants programme (MIKE), indicate that poaching significantly intensified across the continent starting in 2008 and peaking in 2011 – an unsustainably high level of poaching has continued into current times (CITES 2018, 2019). Rapid land use change, driving the direct loss and fragmentation of habitat, is an increasing threat to African elephants across their range. Land conversion is a product of the ongoing expansion of the human population and associated agriculture and infrastructure development, which in turn are driven by economic and technological advances. A specific manifestation of this trend is the reported increase in human-elephant conflict (e.g., Ngama et al. 2016). Human population growth projections suggest land conversion will accelerate rapidly in the coming decades across Africa (see https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/) which will likely increase this threat.”
Footnote / Supplemental Information
(1) Status of Threatened Species in the IUCN Red List
In the IUCN Red List, species are considered to be threatened when they fall into one of the following categories, where species rated CR are at the greatest risk of extinction: Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), and Vulnerable (VU).
(2) For more detailed information on the risk assessments, please refer to the following:
(A) IUCN Red List assessments
- African Savanna Elephant
- African Forest Elephant
- Asian Elephant
*1 Gobush, K.S., Edwards, C.T.T, Balfour, D., Wittemyer, G., Maisels, F. & Taylor, R.D. 2021. Loxodonta africana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T181008073A181022663.
*2 Gobush, K.S., Edwards, C.T.T, Maisels, F., Wittemyer, G., Balfour, D. & Taylor, R.D. 2021. Loxodonta cyclotis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T181007989A181019888.
*3 Thouless, C.R., Dublin, H.T., Blanc, J.J., Skinner, D.P., Daniel, T.E., Taylor, R.D., Maisels, F., Frederick, H.L. & Bouché, P. (2016). African Elephant Status Report 2016
African Elephants and Local Residents (Conflicts between Humans and Elephants)
Here is an article by Dr. Yukino Iwai (The Hirayama Ikuo Memorial Volunteer Center (WAVOC), Waseda University) who is working in Tanzania.
The People Who Live Under the Threats
of African Elephants
written by Dr. Yukino Iwai
Perhaps most people in Japan think that African elephants are endangered and must be protected. However, there are areas in Africa where elephants have increased in number after successful protection and are now intruding villages, threatening the livelihoods of the villagers.
Serengeti National Park in the United Republic of Tanzania is one reserve successful in the protection of elephants, thanks to the dedication of the Tanzanian government and local residents. Although the elephant population in Serengeti National Park was down to 500 in 1989, this number steadily increased after international elephant trade was banned by CITES. As of 2014, the elephant population in this area was estimated to be around 6,000*1.
With this population growth, however, damages caused by elephants are becoming problematic. In farming villages neighboring Serengeti National Park, elephants are raiding fields to eat crops, and in some cases, they have killed people. For example, in Serengeti District, a district adjacent to Serengeti National Park, 30 villages (with 90,000 residents in total) are suffering from such crop damage, and in 2019, seven people were killed by elephants, setting a record-high death toll. Once the crops they had been growing for six months are eaten up by elephants over a single night, the villagers fall into poverty and securing food for survival becomes a task they can barely manage. Fulfillment of basic needs becomes less than satisfactory, and people would have to struggle to secure food for survival, even if that means they would have to cut costs for education or healthcare, resulting in significantly lower QOL. Furthermore, as fatal elephant attacks are taking place within the villages, the locals feel unsafe even just to walk around their residence and are constantly fearing elephant attacks. The number of such incidents has increased in many districts adjacent to wildlife reserves in Tanzania since the 2000s.
Measures Taken by Villagers: Elephant Patrol Teams
In Misseke, one of the villages afflicted by elephants, the number of days per year in which elephant attacks took place reached 134 (according to a study conducted by the author in 2018). It is therefore not possible for the locals to make a living by just waiting for external help. Thus, farmers have formed elephant patrol teams in order to defend their farmland and lives by themselves. Since elephants come out to raid the fields when the villagers are asleep at night, these teams are on the watch for elephants approaching the village all night on a nightly basis. No matter if it rains, gets windy or cold, there is no night off. When an elephant herd is spotted, around 20 people circle it to scare it off back to the reserve, using handmade firecrackers that make explosive sounds similar to the sound of a gun. (The farmers cannot use real guns because even if they fire just to warn the elephants, they would be considered as poachers and be arrested.)
Through these efforts, Misseke has been able to significantly reduce the scale of damage caused by elephants. These efforts, however, are not sustainable, as they create huge burdens for the farmers. Such burdens include injuries sustained when running from elephants, loss of physical strength and declining health caused by having to stay up all night continuously, costs of equipment such as firecrackers and flashlights, and the loss of opportunities to be engaged in other economic activities. The farmers need drastic measures that could remove such burdens that they are having to endure in order to scare elephants off.
Elephants invading the village
Elephant Patrol Teams
Strategic Elephant Population Control
To reduce damage caused by wildlife, comprehensive implementation of the following three measures is said to be required: (i) measures to prevent wild animals from coming near farmland; (ii) management of the habitats of the animals causing problems; and (iii) population control of these animals*2. Wildlife management policies at the national level would be necessary to implement (ii) and (iii). However, the National Human-Wildlife Conflict Management Strategy 2020-2024 which covers elephants, has just been formulated by the Tanzanian government in 2020. At the moment, only (i) is being implemented by the locals as a stopgap measure.
Measures to control wildlife in national parks should be conducted by national governments. At Kruger National Park, Republic of South Africa, where damage caused by elephants is successfully being controlled, the South African government installed electric fences to prevent wild animals from coming near farmland [(i)]. However, it has been reported that vegetation degradation in Kruger National Park is progressing because of the continuous elephant population increase. If this continues, the maintenance of elephant-friendly habitats [(ii)] may no longer be possible*3. At some point, population control [(iii)] will likely become necessary. While elephant protection efforts by the Tanzanian government have shown amazing results, in order to create a society where humans and wildlife can coexist, comprehensive implementation of the aforementioned three measures to address the damages caused by elephants behind successful protection is necessary.
*1 Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), Population Status of Elephant in Tanzania 2014, TAWIRI Aerial Survey Report, 2015.
*2 Noriyuki Teramoto, Manual for Solving Problems Caused by Wildlife: Conservation and Community Building for Forests and Remote Rural Communities, Kokon Shoin, 2018. (Japanese)
*3 South African National Parks (SANParks), Elephant Management Plan Kruger National Park 2013-2022, 2012. [PDF 1.9MB]
For Further Reading
This article is presented as one of the opinions of experts.