/ 30 March 2021

Poaching is wiping out Africa’s elephants

Balance: Elephants are found in 37 African countries
Balance: Elephants are found in 37 African countries, including Kenya. But the herds and their habitats are threatened and people remain divided over how to protect them. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Poaching is pushing the continent’s elephants to the brink — Africa’s enigmatic forest elephants are now classified as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction, and African savanna elephants are endangered.

Both were previously classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The continent’s elephants are too important to the landscapes where they live to lose them, says Dr Benson Okita-Ouma, the co-chair of the IUCN species survival commission’s African elephant specialist group. “They provide so much in terms of ecosystem services for other biodiversity, carbon sequestration and human livelihoods.”

The dramatic decline of these ecologically important animals must signal a renewed call to action to protect them, he adds.

Until now, African elephants were treated as a single species. This is the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the IUCN Red List, after new research into the genetics of elephant populations. 

The IUCN says the latest assessments highlight a “broadscale” decline in African elephant numbers on the continent. The number of African forest elephants has plummeted more than 86% over 31 years; the population of African savanna elephants has fallen at least 60% over the past 50 years. 

Both species have suffered sharp declines since 2008 because of a significant spike in poaching, which peaked in 2011, but continues to imperil populations. 

“We collectively brought poaching levels down from a peak in 2011. We need to stay the course, or even double-down, on stopping the killing, trafficking and demand,” Okita-Ouma says.

Genetic analyses of seized ivory point to a poaching hotspot for forest elephants in the Tridom forest, which comprises three protected areas spread over Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon. “The epicentre of poaching of savanna elephants is apparently moving from East Africa southward,” Okita-Ouma says.

The 2016 IUCN African elephant status report provides the most recent reliable estimate of the continental population of the two species, at about 415 000 elephants. 

“There may be an additional 117 127 to 135 384 elephants in areas not systematically surveyed,” says Dr Kathleen Gobush, the lead assessor of the African elephants and a member of the IUCN species survival commission’s African elephant specialist group.

Poaching is an “acute” issue, which presently causes more population declines than any other factors, she says. 

The ongoing conversion and destruction of elephant habitats, primarily to agricultural and other land uses, is another key threat, according to the IUCN. 

In response to the 2011 peak in poaching and thereafter, Okita-Ouma says, there was a lot of funding for monitoring, especially of savanna elephants, and anti-trafficking in regions such as East Africa, as well as ivory-demand reduction work in Asia and Europe.

“Forest elephants arguably received less attention,” he says. “Their decline is less evident given their cryptic nature and habitat, which is traditionally less visited by tourists. Monitoring in dense forest is difficult and detecting carcasses in these humid habitats is a challenge.”

The forest elephant is thought to occupy only a quarter of its historic range, with the largest remaining populations found in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Gobush says that the forest elephants make up roughly “20% to 25% of the continental total”.

Most of Africa’s forest elephants are in Central Africa. “The last estimation of Central Africa’s forest elephants, not including those in West Africa, was estimated at about 100 000, but that estimate dates back to 2013 and is based on a number of assumptions,” she says. “Newer, cutting edge ways of monitoring forest elephants [are being used] to produce updated numbers.”

The main biological difference between the forest and savannah elephants is their rate of reproduction. This in turn has an effect on their “generation length”, Gobush says.

On average forest elephant females first give birth at the age of 23 and savanna elephants tend to be much earlier at 14 years. 

“Overall, when a forest elephant population has suffered a great decline, it takes longer to recover than a savanna elephant population,” Gobush says. “As such, forest elephants appear to be more sensitive to human‐induced mortality than savanna elephants.” 

The effects of climate change on forest-elephant population trends is unknown, and is not currently a principal threat. “Climate change can [affect] forest structure, function and resiliency; in humid tropical forests, tree growth, recruitment, fruiting timing and abundance could be affected,” she says.

Research on changes in the humid tropical forest biome and the effect on biodiversity is beginning to gain traction. Gobush cites a paper published last year, which found that climate change seems to be reducing fruit availability in a site in Central Gabon

“One can imagine that if climate change significantly reduces the abundance of fruit and vegetation species that the forest elephant depends on, then this may translate to health, reproductive and eventually population growth impacts,” Gobush says. 

Maintaining large, healthy, connected forests is important so species like forest elephants can move in the landscape and find the resources they need to sustain themselves and reproduce, “that is if poaching and overall habitat loss does not already overcome such populations”, Gobush adds.

Okita-Ouma says Africa’s elephants are subject to varying degrees of legal protection in the 37 range countries (20 for forest; 23 for savanna), with most granting them the highest-possible protection status.

Range countries, he says, should be supported in maintaining protected areas, promoting coexistence, and improving and implementing strong laws and policies.