Why Elephants Are Under Threat

Asian elephants are endangered, while African elephants are deemed vulnerable.

African elephant mother and infant in the wild
African elephants are less endangered than their counterparts in Asia, but both face serious risks.

Michelle Gadd [public domain]/USFWS/Flickr 

There are two main groups of elephants left on Earth: African elephants and Asian elephants. Both face serious threats to their long-term survival, although the risks vary widely from place to place. Scientists classify all Asian elephants as a single species, and while the same is often done with African elephants, genetic evidence suggests Africa really has two separate species: savanna elephants and forest elephants.

Asian elephants are endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists African elephants as vulnerable. Several million African elephants roamed across the continent as recently as the early 20th century, but today only about 350,000 remain. Asian elephants were less abundant to begin with, reportedly numbering about 200,000 a century ago, giving them even less of a buffer against population declines. There are now fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, raising the specter of extinction unless something can be done to save them.

Threats to Elephants

The main threat to both Asian and African elephants is a familiar one for wildlife around the world: loss and fragmentation of their habitat. Many elephants also face additional dangers, though, including both direct and indirect conflict with people.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Humans are encroaching on elephants in Africa as well as Asia, but the pressure is especially severe for Asian elephants. Their habitats are increasingly shrunken and fragmented by agriculture, logging, roads, and development for residential or commercial use. Elephants are migratory animals who depend on large, contiguous territories, and this trend robs them of vital resources like food and water. It can also limit genetic diversity by isolating populations from each other.

Conflict With Humans

On top of occupying and altering elephant habitats, people also commonly plant food crops there. As more farms appear in forests and savannas where elephants are accustomed to roaming, their crops often become easy targets for hungry elephants. A herd can destroy a year’s harvest in one night, leading to understandable animosity among farmers, many of whom are nutritionally vulnerable and have little income to offset the loss. This sometimes leads to retaliatory killings of elephants, interactions that are dangerous for everyone involved. These clashes lead to hundreds of deaths across Asia and Africa every year, both elephant and human.

Climate Crisis

All elephants need lots of water, a thirst that drives much of their migratory behavior and daily activities. The need for water can already be a big challenge for elephants even under normal circumstances, but as the climate crisis fuels longer, drier droughts in many places, it can become all but impossible to find enough. This threat is also compounded as their habitats shrink and splinter, since thirsty elephants now have even fewer options for undeveloped places to find water.

Poaching

Many elephant populations plummeted last century due to unsustainable hunting, largely fueled by demand for their ivory tusks. And while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory in 1989, legal ivory markets have remained in some countries, enabled by a resurgent black market and well-armed gangs of poachers. Poaching can threaten elephants almost anywhere, but most illegal ivory currently comes from African elephants, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), where thousands of elephants are killed by poachers every year.

What Can We Do to Help?

Aside from being intelligent, charismatic, and iconic, elephants are also important keystone species who shape and sustain the ecosystems around them. Many people around the world are dedicated to preserving these ancient creatures; here are a few of their top priorities:

Protect Their Habitat

Since the main threat to elephants is habitat loss, it makes sense to focus our conservation efforts on preserving what’s left of their natural environment. Less than 20% of African elephant habitat is under formal protection, according to WWF, while an average of 70% of elephants in Asia are found outside protected areas. For large, migratory animals like elephants, the key is not just protecting isolated pockets of habitat, but also linking those pockets into large-scale wildlife corridors. In India and Nepal, for example, the Terai Arc Landscape project aims to reconnect a chain of 12 protected areas where Asian elephants live.

Reduce Demand for Ivory

Although poaching of African elephants has fallen slightly since a peak in 2011, it remains a significant danger, especially combined with the many other threats facing elephant populations. Wild elephants need legal protection as well as parks and rangers with resources to enforce those laws, but it will be difficult to stop poaching without also addressing the demand for ivory that drives it. That is another focus for conservationists, who scored an important victory in 2017 when China ended its legal ivory trade. As a consumer, anyone can support the effort to save elephants simply by never buying anything containing ivory.

Help Humans Who Share Their Habitat

Park rangers are on the front lines against armed poachers, and more resources are always needed to protect elephants across huge expanses of space. But the fate of elephants is also more broadly linked to the human communities around them, since people with enough legal opportunities to support their families might be less likely to resort to poaching for income. And where farmers clash with elephants on the fringes of their remaining habitat, conservationists are trying a variety of creative techniques to help both creatures coexist. Many small farmers can’t afford fences strong enough to keep out elephants, for example, but some now surround their crops with beehive fences, which take advantage of elephants’ natural fear of bees. As a bonus, the bees also provide fresh local honey.