Threats and conservation

Elephants are faced with a dual threat to their survival

  • The destruction of their habitat
  • Hunting

The former is common to many other species, the latter is due to the elephant’s possession of a precious commodity - ivory.

Habitat destruction

Habitat destruction has both reduced the total range of elephants, and has greatly fragmented it. The principal cause is human settlement and agriculture due to population growth, but activities such as logging for financial gain also contribute.

Over much of the range, the remaining areas of habitat correspond to national parks, nature reserves and the like. Many of these fragments retain less than 100 individuals, and prospects for their long-term survival are not good. If there is no exchange of individuals with other populations, inbreeding reduces the genetic health of the population. If climatic fluctuations produce a series of stressful years, the population will suffer increased mortality and reduced birth rate, and may not recover.

In West Africa through the 1980s, elephant populations in habitat fragments of less than 250 km2 had only a 20% chance of surviving the decade, while those in areas of more than 750 km2 had almost a 100% chance of survival.

Hunting

The hunting of elephants for meat has been practised since prehistoric times, but only with the use of firearms has the thirst for ivory posed a threat to the very survival of the species. By 1800, the elephant populations of southern and West Africa had already been seriously depleted. A century later, the trade from Africa had increased to 1000 tonnes per year. The 1970s and 1980s proved critical: the total African population fell from an estimated 1.3 million animals in 1979, to just over 400,000 in 1987.

Combating the ivory trade is a complex issue that requires the enforcement not only of bans against hunting, but international action to trace the organizers of poaching, the middle men, and the ultimate consumers.

Conservation

From its foundation in the 1970s, CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed African elephants on its Appendix II (allowing limited trading). In 1989, however, they were raised to Appendix I, effectively banning all trade in elephant ivory. The policy worked: ivory prices fell, and many countries reported a drastic reduction in poaching. However, in 1997, some southern African countries with healthy elephant populations won from CITES permission to sell their ivory stocks. The market was stimulated, and in subsequent years, increased poaching has been reported by a number of African countries. Nevertheless, in 2002, and again in 2007, CITES allowed further sales of stockpiled ivory by these countries, despite almost universal opposition from conservation organisations, who argue that such sales only serve to stimulate the ivory trade and illegal killing of elephants.

A recent report (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/17/illegal-ivory-trade-poachers-africa) indicates that there is a massive current surge in ivory trading: more than 14,000 products made from the tusks and other body parts of elephants were seized in 2009. It is estimated that between 8% and 10% of Africa’s elephants are now being killed each year to meet the demand, mostly from the Far East. With the current world population of African elephant at around 300,000-400,000, this represents an annual take of up to 40,000 animals and is clearly not sustainable.

The management and protection of elephant habitats is also a major goal. International support enabling poor countries to maintain existing wildlife reserves, or to create new ones, is crucial. Properly managed eco-tourism can be beneficial, as it provides an income underscoring the value of the reserve. Yet small reserves, even when protected, may not support enough animals to give a viable population. Raman Sukumar has suggested that 50 breeding individuals, translating into 125-150 animals, is a minimum goal, with 10 times that number an ideal. One solution to this problem is to create corridors of habitat, allowing animals to migrate between parks, so that populations are effectively merged into one, viable unit.

Elephant-human conflict

Elephant-human conflict is a serious issue in some areas. Elephants enter agricultural areas and can destroy the entire crop of a smallholding in a single night. Traditional countermeasures include lighting flares, throwing rocks, employing domestic elephants to chase away the marauders, or digging trenches around fields. The latter are of some use but elephants learn how to fill them with earth or logs. Electric fences are employed by rich landowners, but are too expensive to bound large national parks or small private holdings. Other measures include not planting crops favoured by elephants in the area around their habitat, and relocating farms and villages (with compensation paid to the farmers). The latter may also be necessary when extending reserves or creating habitat corridors.

In some African countries, elephant populations in wildlife parks have been held in check by government-approved culling. The stated rationale is to prevent the populations increasing to the point where they turn woodland into grassland, reducing biodiversity, and leading to elephant mortality when drought hits, as happened in Tsavo National park, Kenya, in the 1960s and 1970s. Opponents counter that culling (sometimes of entire family groups) is inhumane and causes stress to surviving animals; is a temptation for illicit ivory dealing; interferes with natural cycles; and depresses tourism. Possible alternatives include relocating animals to areas of low density and subcutaneous implants of birth-control hormones.

While elephants in Asia (Elephas maximus) have been domesticated for thousands of years, the African elephant has been domesticated only rarely. This difference appears to be for human cultural reasons rather than any innate inability of the species to be domesticated. The Carthaginians fought the Romans with them, and Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps was probably with the help of the African species. In modern times, Belgian colonisers domesticated elephants for traction and other uses in Central Africa.