African Elephant Range Is a Fraction of What It Could Be

Human threats have made it harder for elephants to roam.

Front view of a bull elephant in the grasslands of Amboseli National Park.
A bull elephant in the grasslands of Amboseli National Park. Rixipix / Getty Images

African elephants have plenty of suitable habitats, but the actual range they use is only about 17% of what it could be, say researchers in a recent study published in Current Biology.

Many wildlife species are threatened by loss of habitat. They face continued human pressure from agricultural encroachment and development, deforestation, and poaching.

African elephants are particularly vulnerable to human threats. Records of tusks being removed from elephants go back as early as the first century A.D. Poaching skyrocketed in the 17th century when European colonizers first settled in the Cape of Africa. Over the next 250 years, ivory hunting caused elephants to nearly go extinct from the southern tip of Africa to the Zambezi River.

“We believe elephants don't range throughout the continent anymore because they've been wiped out by humans for ivory,” lead author Jake Wall of the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya, tells Treehugger.

Wall adds: “But it's not only poaching and hunting that has played a role — habitat loss from human expansion and, importantly, the fragmentation of remaining habitat into smaller, disconnected areas is also making it harder for elephants to survive.”

The study found that 62% of Africa, an area of more than 18 million square kilometers — larger than Russia — still has suitable habitat for elephants.

How Researchers Track Elephants

For the study, researchers used GPS tracking to study elephants throughout a range of different sites. They fitted radio collars on 229 adult elephants including male and female, savannah and forest elephants for the study.

They tracked the elephants from 19 distinct geographic sites that covered four biomes: savannah in East Africa, forest in Central Africa, the sahel in West Africa, and bushveld in South Africa. They tracked the elephants between 1998 and 2013.

“We collected data through a combination of GPS tracking by fitting collars around the necks of elephants and collecting (mostly) hourly locations,” Wall explains. “We then coupled these data with remote sensing information extracted using Google's Earth Engine platform. We then re-ran our statistical models for every square kilometer of Africa to build the habitat suitability model.”

The analysis considered the relationship between home range area and sex, species, vegetation, tree cover, temperature, rainfall, water, slope, human influence, and protected area use.

With this information, they were able to learn which habitats could support elephants and the extreme conditions the animals can withstand.

The team found large areas of potentially suitable habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. These forests once held hundreds of thousands of elephants, but now hold only 10,000 at most, the researchers note.

The researchers also pointed out extreme areas where elephants don’t visit.

"The major no-go areas include the Sahara, Danakil, and Kalahari deserts, as well as urban centers and high mountaintops," said study co-author Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, in a statement. "That gives us an idea of what the former range of elephants might have been. However, there's a dearth of information about the status of African elephants between the end of Roman times and the arrival of the first European colonizers."

Protecting the Future of Elephants

The findings showed that elephants living in protected areas of the continent tended to have smaller home ranges. The researchers suggest that’s likely because they don’t feel as safe moving into unprotected land. Approximately 57% of the current elephant range is outside of protected areas, the study notes, which highlights that limited room is reserved to keep the animals safe.

"Elephants are generalist mega-herbivores that can occupy fringe habitats," Wall says. "Their range may have shrunk, but if we gave them the chance, they could spread back to former parts of it."

Unfortunately, trends are heading in the wrong direction with human involvement only continuing to grow. "The human footprint is increasing at an accelerated rate and expected to double by 2050, with between 50% and 70% of the planet already experiencing anthropogenic disturbance," the researchers write.

Wall suggests steps to protect the future of elephants in Africa.

“Community conservancies are a fantastic approach for this, outside of national protection, and are very successful here in Kenya. Also, emphasis should be put on building corridors so that remaining habitat stays connected - a critical component to the ecology of most species,” he says.

“Both security and programs for monitoring the movements and ranges of elephants (and other wildlife) are also needed. Finally, education and programs that help communities bearing the brunt of human-wildlife conflict are needed to keep the interface between people and wildlife peaceful. Again, community conservancies are a very good model for this.”

View Article Sources
  1. Wall, Jake, et al. "Human Footprint And Protected Areas Shape Elephant Range Across Africa." Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.042

  2. "African elephants' range is just 17 percent of what it could be." Science Daily, 2021.