conservation than the noble elephant that marches the plains of Africa and the jungles of Asia. However, while the elephant is admired everywhere for its intelligence and emotional complexity, it is under assault from all sides and is tragically facing extinction. And, if findings from a recent conservation conference in Botswana are to be believed, this is something which could happen as soon as 2025, leaving us precious little time to act¹.
Trade in ivory has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1989². However, a massive unregulated market still exists and is the primary threat to elephant populations. It is driven by demand from wealthy Asian and Western countries and although 46 countries recently pledged to strengthen protection for elephants, figures released reported in The Guardian in 2015 paint a frightening picture³,⁴.
A CITES monitoring program showed an estimated number of 20,000 African elephants killed by poachers for their tusks in 2013 and similar numbers were reported for 2014, despite the new regulations⁴,⁵. Over 60% of carcases studied across the African continent were found to have died due to poaching. If more than 50% of deaths come from poaching, this causes a downward spiral that is difficult to halt, as populations struggle to maintain their numbers naturally.
The good news is that many initiatives are in place to help conserve elephants. World Wildlife Fund has established protected zones in countries including Mozambique, trained wildlife managers in Cambodia and Lao and worked with governments to identify illegal trade routes and shut down suppliers.
Furthermore, Bloomberg Business reports that an innovative private sector initiative in Tanzania plans to use unmanned drones to monitor poacher movements, helping law enforcement officials to track them down⁶. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Global Initiative has pledged $80 million to improving anti-poaching efforts, creating intelligence networks and increasing awareness of the issue in order to reduce demand.
The second main threat to elephant populations is habitat loss. Ancient migratory routes and foraging ground have been reduced due to climate change or destroyed to make way for expanding human settlements, roads and pipelines. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Sumatran elephant has lost nearly 70% of its habitat since 1985, reducing its population to around 2500, leading to increased human/elephant conflicts and to its Red List status of ‘critically endangered’⁷. In Africa, WWF estimates that elephant ranges have shrunk from 3 million square miles in 1979 to around 1 million in 2007 and which has been caused by civil war, logging and mining.
The problem is particularly pressing in South East Asia, where Conservation International estimates only 5% of irreplaceable jungle remains, but many forest restoration projects are underway. Organisations such as the Save Elephant Foundation work with communities to restore lost habitat and educate locals about the importance of maintaining a balance between humans and wildlife.
A future without elephants is a worrying thought. Not only do they provide vital ecosystems services that maintain biodiversity, but their presence is a humbling reminder of the majesty of nature. A world without elephants would represent a tragic loss but despite our best efforts, it is looking increasingly likely.