An elephantine crisis: new study investigates elephant losses in Africa

At the Conference of Parties to CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa last September, the International Union for Conservation of Nature presented a new study that revealed African Elephant populations have experienced the worst losses in 25 years.

The IUCN report, presented at the 17th conference between the organizations, investigated the welfare of various species, including the African Elephant. The report listed the estimated populations of this species in almost 40 states in sub-Saharan Africa, and found that the approximate decline was a devastating 111,000 elephants in the surveyed areas (IUCN).  

Mr. Inger Anderson, the director general of the IUCN stated, “These new numbers reveal the truly alarming plight of the majestic elephant – one of the world’s most intelligent animals and the largest terrestrial mammal alive today.”

Yet even more disturbing than the sharp decline is the reason behind it: poaching. It’s a troubling issue for the IUCN, one they have attributed to the popularity of the ongoing ivory trade. Elephant populations in East Africa were found to have experienced a 50 percent decrease from poaching activity alone (IUCN).

“It is shocking but not surprising that poaching has taken such a dramatic toll on this iconic species,” Anderson remarks. “This report provides further scientific evidence of the need to scale up efforts to combat poaching.”

Evidence from the report aligns with his beliefs. According to the IUCN report, population decline driven by poachers has become more apparent in areas not previously affected by the issue, including Southern Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The issue of poaching, however, does not only affect elephants. It has demonstrated its pervasiveness in its recent overtaking of populations of the Helmeted Hornbill, a bird from southeast Asia that has been hunted for a part of its beak that has qualities similar to ivory (ABC News).

However, there were signs of hope. Besides the troubling facts presented by the IUCN report, progress in protecting the elephant populations was also evident. Large populations in South Africa and Namibia have been reported to be either relatively stable or experiencing a positive increase (IUCN). Holly Dublin, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Elephant Specialist Group and leader of the report’s preparation emphasizes the importance of such a study.

“This is the first time since 2006 that we have produced an African elephant status report with a continent-wide update and analysis of elephant numbers and distribution,” says Dublin. “Understanding population numbers and their distribution is crucial in order to recognize threats faced by the species, target conservation actions and assess their effectiveness.”