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Concerns for the Future of Africa’s Elephant Population

An insatiable lust for ivory products in the Asian market makes the illegal ivory trade extremely profitable, and has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants. The Great Elephant Census shows that savanna elephant populations in 18 countries declined by 30 percent. Most of the animals counted were in protected areas.

African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by their larger ears that look somewhat like the continent of Africa.

In 1930, as many as 10 million wild elephants roamed huge swaths of the African continent. But decades of poaching and conflict have since decimated African elephant populations. At 2016, experts estimated that Africa’s elephant population had dropped by 111,000 elephants in the span of a decade.

So far, there are just 415,000 elephants across Africa, but approximately 10-15,000 are killed each year by poachers. While elephant poaching is trending downward, with significant declines in East Africa, poaching continues to steer the species dangerously nearer to extinction.

Much of the decline in the elephant population is due to illegal poaching by people who sell elephant tusks on the Chinese market. Past estimates of how many elephants are illegally killed were based on models and incomplete carcass counts, as opposed to comparing population numbers.

Governmental corruption and political instability in sub-Saharan African countries allowed the ivory trade to occur for centuries. Lack of regulation contributed to the continuous degradation and exploitation of natural resources.

The current decrease in elephant populations is primarily due to illegal poaching, demand for Ivory products, and factors associated with human population growth. The poaching is driven by market demand for ivory in Asia, especially Vietnam and China.

Although in 2017, positive development came from China as the country announced that it was banning the commercial trade of ivory. But trade and poaching bans in China and in Africa have also had the negative effect of driving the value of ivory up. Although it has also pushed the trade onto the black market. Curbing illegal poaching of elephants for ivory depends on a decrease in the demand for such priceless products.

Also known as “ecosystem engineers,” elephants shape their habitat in many ways. During the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes many animals can drink from. Habitat fragmentation, as well as the alteration of age and genetic distribution within existing elephant populations also cause population decrease.

This issue has severe ecological repercussions, as African elephants are keystone species within the the continent’s landscapes. They perform a vital role maintaining ecosystem balances within African savannas and forests. African elephants are a keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in their ecosystem. For instance, end of Mozambique’s civil war in 1992 was a blessing for people and wildlife alike. It’s elephant population rose from 825 to 16,475 during this period. African elephants are a globally recognized animal who play an important roles in many local communities’ religions and cultural identities.

African elephants also share the same intrinsic existence value as humans and all other organisms, which must be recognized and respected. Many governments have tried to prevent illegal elephant hunting by establishing parks and disrupting the market for ivory, which drives poachers to go after the animals. For long-term success, governments need to prioritize comprehensive social and behavioural change interventions to both prevent and reduce demand.

As human populations expand, more land is being converted to agriculture and development activities. As a result, elephant habitat has been shrinking and becoming more fragmented, and people and elephants are increasingly coming into contacts and conflicts with each other. As long as there is population growth and urbanization, habitat loss and degradation, conflict with communities will remain a major threat to elephants’ survival.

In May 2019, the government of Botswana lifted its blanket hunting ban which was imposed in 2014 on the grounds of increasing elephant populations. This came in the wake of events in the north-eastern side of Botswana, where a number of elephants were killed for destroying crops.

Implementing stronger protection policies for wild elephants at both local and international levels of government; stronger enforcement and legislative measures against the poaching and illegal trade of ivory.

Continuous engagement with local and indigenous communities, especially with those living in close proximity to wildlife habitats should be strengthened. Strengthening information-sharing infrastructure and governance frameworks to address human-nature conflicts, working closely with local communities hugely help countries to curb poaching and illegal wildlife activities. This will also enhanced people’s understanding of the importance of preserving elephant populations, as well as given them an opportunity to actively partake in national decision-making processes of wildlife and natural resource conservation.

Better management of natural elephant habitats; better education about the vital role of the elephant in ecosystems; more viable alternative economic opportunities for those whose livelihoods depend on elephants; improved treatment for captive elephants; and, where appropriate, reintroduction of captive elephants into protected sanctuaries that allow a natural replenishing of endangered populations.

Countries should invest in wildlife management and conservation tools. They should also strengthen and improve training of rangers and provide them with better equipment, including high-frequency radio systems, night vision devices and computer and smartphone software, and aircrafts equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology.


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