Demystifying the Threats Faced by African elephant

Men with African elephant tusks in Dar es Salaam, c. 1900

The African elephant is a genus comprising two living elephant species, the African bush elephant (L. africana) and the smaller African forest elephant. Both are social herbivores with grey skin, but differ in the size and colour of their tusks and in the shape and size of their skulls and ears.

Both species are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, and poaching for the illegal ivory trade is a threat in several range countries as well. The African bush elephant is listed as Endangered and the African forest elephant as Critically Endangered on the respective IUCN Red Lists.

Based on vegetation types that provide suitable habitat for African elephants, it was estimated that in the early 19th century a maximum of 26,913,000 African elephants might have been present from the Sahel in the north to the Highveld in the south. Decrease of suitable habitat was the major cause for the decline of elephant populations until the 1950s. Hunting African elephants for the ivory trade accelerated the decline from the 1970s onwards. The carrying capacity of remaining suitable habitats was estimated at 8,985,000 elephants at most by 1987. In the 1970s and 1980s, the price for ivory rose, and poaching for ivory increased in particular in Central African range countries where access to elephant habitats was facilitated by logging and petroleum mining industries.

Between 1976 and 1980, about 830 t (820 long tons; 910 short tons) raw ivory was exported from Africa to Hong Kong and Japan, equivalent to tusks of about 222,000 African elephants.

The first continental elephant census was carried out in 1976. At the time, 1.34 million elephants were estimated to range over 7,300,000 km2 (2,800,000 sq mi).

In the 1980s, it was difficult to carry out systematic surveys in several East African range countries due to civil wars. In 1987, it was estimated that the African elephant population had declined to 760,000 individuals. In 1989, only 608,000 African elephants were estimated to have survived. In 1989, the Kenyan Wildlife Service burned a stockpile of tusks in protest against the ivory trade.

When the international ivory trade reopened in 2006, the demand and price for ivory increased in Asia. In Chad’s Zakouma National Park, more than 3,200 elephants were killed between 2005 and 2010. The park did not have sufficient guards to combat poaching and their weapons were outdated. Well organized networks facilitated smuggling the ivory through Sudan. The government of Tanzania estimated that more than 85,000 elephants were lost to poaching in Tanzania between 2009 and 2014, representing a 60% loss. In 2012, a large upsurge in ivory poaching was reported, with about 70% of the product flowing to China. China was the biggest market for poached ivory but announced that it would phase out the legal domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products in May 2015.

Conflicts between elephants and a growing human population are a major issue in elephant conservation. Human encroachment into natural areas where bush elephants occur or their increasing presence in adjacent areas has spurred research into methods of safely driving groups of elephants away from humans. Playback of the recorded sounds of angry Western honey bees has been found to be remarkably effective at prompting elephants to flee an area. Farmers have tried scaring elephants away by more aggressive means such as fire or the use of chili peppers along fences to protect their crops.

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