Elephants are among the most intelligent of the creatures with whom we share the planet, with complex consciousnesses that are capable of strong emotions. Across Africa they have inspired respect from the people that share the landscape with them, giving them a strong cultural significance. As icons of the continent elephants are tourism magnets, attracting funding that helps protect wilderness areas. They are also keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live.
During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig for water. This not only allows the elephants to survive in dry environments and when droughts strike, but also provides water for other animals that share harsh habitats.
When forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for other smaller animals to use. They are also one of the major ways in which trees disperse their seeds; some species rely entirely upon elephants for seed dispersal.
On the savannahs, elephants feeding on tree sprouts and shrubs help to keep the plains open and able to support the plains game that inhabit these ecosystems.
Wherever they live, elephants leave dung that is full of seeds from the many plants they eat. When this dung is deposited the seeds are sown and grow into new grasses, bushes and trees, boosting the health of the Savannah ecosystem.
Recent research by STE revealed that an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa between 2010 and 2012. The number of elephants remaining in Africa is uncertain, but are likely to be in the region of 500,000. Taking into account births these losses are driving declines in the world’s wild African elephants on the order of 2-3% a year. The ivory trade is fuelling organised crime and insecurity as traffickers smuggle tusks through the same networks as other high value illegal goods such as drugs. Ultimately the trade is driven by demand for ivory in consumer countries, mostly in the East, where it is sought after as a status symbol and an investment.
Elephants are increasingly being crowded out of their habitats. Humans are encroaching these lands for farming and infrastructural development, which leaves elephants with small patches of disconnected land.
Africa’s human population is surging and pushing ever more into elephant rangelands. When farms are established where elephants are used to roaming they become a target for crop-raiding by hungry elephants. A year’s crop can be wiped out in a single night, creating understandable resentment. Both farmers and elephants can be wounded or killed in the conflict that ensues. Pressure from livestock grazing in elephant rangeland is also mounting, impacting the amount of food available for elephants and increasing the chances of herders being attacked by nervous elephants.
With an increasing human population comes infrastructure development. Roads, railways, piplelines and human settlements can all form barriers to wildlife movements, fragmenting habitats into ever smaller areas. Without corridors to link these islands of habitat, herds can have trouble reaching food and water at certain times of year. They may also be separated from other elephant groups, decreasing their breeding opportunities. This is not healthy for the genetic diversity of the population.
When grazing goes unchecked, it can quickly eliminate grass in an area. This means less food for both livestock and wildlife, including elephants, and leads to soil erosion that impacts the growth of grass in the future. It is important to identify and allocate grazing land for livestock away from wildlife areas, unless tight controls can be established.
In a single decade between 1979 and 1989, half of all Africa’s elephants were lost to the ivory trade, according to pan African census conducted by STE’s Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Amid public outrage over the crisis, in 1989 Kenya burned her stockpile of ivory in protest at the trade and the world’s international wildlife trade body CITES banned all international trade in elephant tusks.
For the next decade the trade lay dormant and African elephant populations began to recover. By 2007 it was estimated to be between 470,000 and 690,000 (Blanc et al. 2007). But a new crisis was brewing, fuelled by demand for ivory particularly in China where a demographic and economic boom had taken place.
The forests of Central Africa are the hardest place to study or protect elephants, but it seems they were the first to be hit by the new wave of killing that resulted from this new demand. Between 2002 and 2011 Maisels et al (2013) estimate that the world’s forest elephant population was reduced by
As Central Africa’s elephant numbers plummeted the poaching pressure began to move to the savannahs of East Africa. In 2009 Save the Elephants recorded a spike in poaching rates in Samburu and published a warning in the journal Nature that East Africa’s protected areas were now in danger. Our worst fears came true. Our research estimates that the number of elephants killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012 was
The demand for ivory in the far East is the primary driver of the killing. In the four years up to 2014 the wholesale price of raw ivory in China tripled, reaching a per kilo dollar price of