“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior,” said Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter while reporting on how elephants are hunted for their ivory in 2011.
There is no more iconic symbol of wildlife 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 act.
Where do elephants live and why are they important for the environment?
There are two major species of elephants, African and Asian.
- African elephants are the largest mammal on earth, up to 14 feet (4 meters) tall and weighing in around 8 tons (6,300-7,300 kg).
- Asian elephants reach nine to ten feet (3 meters) and weigh around 5,000 pounds.
- African elephants used to roam the entire continent, and although some do live in the forests and deserts, they are mainly found in the sub-Saharan savannahs today.
- Most Asian elephants live in forests.
- All elephants are herbivores, eating twigs, seeds, grass, leaves, bark and bananas, sugar cane and marula fruit.
- An adult needs to consume between 300 to 400 pounds (880 kg) of vegetation a day.
- In the hotter areas, an elephant may need to drink 50 gallons (190 liters) of water a day.
So wherever an elephant wanders, it is obvious that their habits of eating and drinking alone will impact their environment. Their large impact makes them a keystone species, that is a species crucial for maintaining the numbers and diversity of other species.
The removal of a keystone species has a cascading negative effect on the entire ecosystem .
The savannas exist as the grasslands they are because the elephants push down trees and devour the low shrubs. In their foraging, elephants knock off the seed pods of the acacia trees for warthogs, kudus and baboons to consume.
The grasslands in turn sustain an ecosystem of grazing animals like zebras, gazelles and impalas. Lions, jackals and hyenas then have prey to eat. The grasslands also provide home to small burrowing animals like honey badgers and mice .
Consider too that an average elephant produces 250 pounds of manure a day. Elephant dung, containing 50 percent of the original nutrients consumed, as their digestive systems are notoriously inefficient, sustains a platoon of wildlife believed to include monkeys, baboons, hornbills and mongoose as well as many insects, like dung beetles. Small ground animals feed off the grubs and insects.
Some suggest that the dung actually provides a habitat for many insect species including ants, centipedes, scorpions, crickets and spiders and recently in Sri Lanka, three species of frog were found to “reside in” dung .
The dung too contains seeds from trees as far as 40 miles away. Because the seeds are already in fertile soil, the chances of germination are greatly increased.
For this reason, elephants are credited with the spread of the Balanite tree, highly valued for subsistence in these areas of frequent famine as each part of it can be used for some purpose: food, medicine, cosmetics, fuel, pesticides and fodder .
Elephants create paths through the forests which can be used by other animals and humans. And in digging in dry riverbeds for water, they create holes which reach the water table and trap rain.
Other animals and even humans, like the like the pygmies of the Central African Republic can then have access to water.
Are elephants really endangered?
Hunting elephants for ivory and sport has reduced their numbers by 50 percent over the past century.
Even though many initiatives have been implemented to reduce poaching for ivory and a couple of the south African species have not only recovered their populations but are growing, on the whole elephants remain at risk of extinction, with the Sumatran species of Asian elephants closest to the brink.
Sumatran elephants are in fact critically endangered.
All other African and Asian elephants remain on the CITES appendices as threatened or vulnerable, with strict limitations on trade in ivory of African elephants and prohibitions on commercial trade in Asian elephants and their parts and products [11,12].
Threats to elephants: Is poaching the main threat?
Technically, poaching defined as illegal killing remains the number one threat.
The restrictions on ivory trade have been deemed successful in many regions, though declining populations due to poaching are still being reported in Africa . For example, elephant numbers in Tanzania have fallen by 53 percent. With an estimated population of less than half a million in Africa, the issue of poaching needs to be urgently addressed to help stabilize elephant population decreases.
Still, the focus is shifting now. 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, 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 regulations.
Over 60 percent of carcasses studied across the African continent were found to have died due to poaching. If more than 50 percent of deaths come from poaching, this causes a downward spiral that is difficult to halt, as populations struggle to maintain their numbers naturally. Declining elephant populations continue with environmentalists sounding the alarm given the ever increasing risk of potential extinction of the species.
Elephant poaching hotspots in the world
To this end, relatively recent research first published in 2015 reveals that most illegally poached African elephant ivory can be traced back to just two areas. Scientists matched DNA from the ivory that was being seized to that of elephant dung from elephants across Africa to map out where elephants were being poached.
The research team analyzed ivory from 28 seizures made between 1996 and 2014 and compared this to dung samples from 1,500 individuals, each from a separate family group and living in different locations across Africa.
Because elephants are social creatures and stay in groups, researchers were able to trace the source of the ivory by linking it to the dung DNA samples that were most similar to the DNA found in the ivory. It is worth noting that the ivory samples included 61 percent of all large seizures made worldwide between 2012 and 2014.
The area of Tridom which spans across parts of Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, was also an area of concern.
There was also a clear change in ivory poaching before and after 2006. Specifically, between 1996 and 2005, most forest elephant ivory came from locations from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but this was not the case for samples after 2005.
Similarly, it appears that the savanna elephant poaching hotspot began shifting towards the north in 2011: from southeastern Tanzania it gradually moved towards Kenya.
Beyond tracing the changes in poaching areas across Africa, the research also revealed the flaws in thwarting poaching activities even in protected areas as more than 85 percent of the forest elephant ivory seized between 2006 to 2014 was traced to the Tridom protected ecosystem.
In addition, the findings suggest that there must be a link between the traders of illegal wildlife products as one of the largest seizures of ivory contained samples from both of the key hotspots.
Samples originating from other areas in Africa also showed other specificities such as more complicated shipping strategies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, out of the 28 seizures, for 23 the genetic test proved that their actual country of origin was different to the one from which they were being shipped.
The dangers of herd fragmentation by poaching
Certainly, the rampant poaching has caused a number of effects that continue to contribute to further decline, most notably the tendency of poachers to kill the largest animals of the herd who are generally the matriarchal leaders of the herd, responsible for guiding the herd to find food and water.
This is leaving herds with juveniles who do not know where the water and food sources are . Not only are they lacking in knowledge, it is likely that the killing of the mothers has caused more profound destabilizing effects.
There is much we do not know about their internal communications as they take place below our range of hearing. Although “purring” has been noted, it has been found that males, who are usually solitary (the herds being composed of female adults and children), actually continue to communicate with the females from miles away .
So it is possible that the impact of the fragmentation of the herds from poaching is greater than we understand.
Increasing fragmentation of elephant populations is also being caused by other threats that we do not have a comprehensive plan to address.
But illegal wildlife trade and trophy hunting are not the only risks.
Today, an even more significant risk pushing elephants toward extinction is the loss of their habitat. Elephants require a lot of space.
For example, Asian elephants used to roam from Syria to northern China and the Indonesian islands. Now, with only 15 percent of their habitual territory available, they can be found only in isolated herds in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia 
As human population continues to increase and development expands, the elephant’s habitat is further closing in.
The close proximity to humans is not only destabilizing the social organization patterns of the herds, it is provoking increased incidences of conflict, with elephants killed by humans to protect food sources and family.
Habitat loss affects elephants more than we are willing to accept
Ancient migratory routes and foraging ground have been reduced due to climate change or destroyed to make way for expanding settlements. Humans are moving into the habitat of elephants, building roads, businesses, homes and sometimes creating big plantations, for products like palm oil.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Sumatran elephant has lost nearly 70 percent of its habitat since 1985, reducing its population to around 2,500, leading to increased human/elephant conflicts and to its Red List status of ‘critically endangered’.
The problem is particularly pressing in South East Asia, where Conservation International estimates only five percent 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.
Elephants can efficiently demolish a family’s garden or even a plantation over very little time. Due to their enormity, elephants can be frightening. In response, farmers and concerned citizens are shooting, poisoning, electrocuting and setting traps for elephants .
More peaceably, innovative piecemeal measures are being implemented to protect crops, like the “chili bombs” made of chilis and dung, repugnant to the elephant’s sensitive olfactory senses and thus effective in discouraging elephants from approaching and raiding maize crops in central Africa .
Elephants are afraid of bees . Perhaps surrounding a pasture with beehives would discourage rampant foraging.
More steps must be taken to facilitate coexistence, more comprehensive plans developed to protect both humans and elephants.
For example, it could be that a better answer to the preserves now being created and marketed for ecotourism would address the need for migration by creating corridors to other reserves. There could be ways to discourage roaming elephants from certain areas.
How can we save elephants from extinction?
International concern over the declining numbers of elephants prompted a complete ban on the ivory trade by the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species (CITES) in 1990.
Some governments have taken aggressive measures to catch poachers and staunch the flow of contraband as poachers use increasingly sophisticated techniques to conceal their activities as black-market prices for ivory soared. Most recent reports show that the black-market price for ivory has fallen .
Although results of government measures has been positive, the support for banning ivory has not been universal.
In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, people farm elephants on ranches for trophy hunters, arguing that ivory trade should be simply regulated, not banned. And last spring, the US lifted its ban on importing sport-hunted trophies of elephants from certain African countries .
Other actions that can certainly make a difference include:
- Continued monitoring and enforcement of the illegal wildlife trade is essential to prevent backslides or even new markets for elephant parts from opening up.
- Legalized hunting must be monitored for its impact on elephant populations.
- Planned development allowing the elephants freedom to roam as they need must be implemented.
- This will necessarily involve learning and then educating people to understand elephant behavior.
The research from 2015 on the elephant poaching hotspots mentioned earlier in this article was truly innovative and the first of its kind. It came about as a result of the combined efforts of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, INTERPOL and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, among others.
Lead researcher and author, Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington, hopes that the findings will help bring about a more targeted and robust approach to halting poaching activities. Speaking at the University of Washington’s news outlet, Wasser was quoted saying:
When you’re losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent – nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source. Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate.
Initiatives against elephant poaching are rising
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 and other technology to monitor poacher movements, helping law enforcement officials to track them down.
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.
What do elephants need to survive?
It appears that elephants need a lot of fresh vegetation, water, community with each other and space.They may need to take ancestral migratory routes. Studying the behavior of herds should reveal how a particular herd moves and its optimal living conditions.
Creating an environment that satisfies these conditions is the only way elephants will be able to survive the human population explosion.
A future without elephants is a worrying. 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.