Status and Future of Elephants in the Wild

African Elephant Populations in the Wild

During the 20th century, poaching of African elephants for their ivory tusks significantly reduced populations throughout the continent; some regions experiencing severely drastic decline. It is believed that there were between 3 and 5 million African elephants as recently as the 1930s and 1940s. In 1979, there were estimated to be 1.3 million elephants in Africa; ten years later, there were only approximately 650,000.  In Kenya alone, the elephant population plummeted from 130,000 in 1973 to less than 20,000 in 1989, a loss of 85%. In Chad, the population declined from 400,000 in 1970 to about 10,000 in 2006. In the Tanzanian Selous Game Reserve, once the largest of any reserve in the world, elephant numbers dropped from 109,000 in 1976 to an astounding 13,000 in 2013. Populations in Tanzania and Mozambique have dropped by 60% and 48%, respectively, in the last five years alone. Forrest Elephant populations were discovered to have declined by 62% in the last ten years. To stay up to date on recent elephant numbers and the research that Save the Elephants is collaborating on with the Great Elephant Census, visit www.savethelephants.org.

Today there are less than 450,000 African elephants left in the wild and they are under constant pressure from human impact. African elephants are listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as Threatened, Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Every day, human beings negatively impact the lives of wild elephants. Poaching for the commercial trade in ivory, increasing loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, and conflict with people over diminishing resources threaten the survival and welfare of elephants. Fueled by poverty and a growing market for ivory, poaching is on the rise once more. Ivory hunters target older animals with heavier tusks, leaving traumatized individuals, fragmented families, and destroying the very fabric of elephant society.

Human-elephant conflict results in the killing, injuring, spearing, poisoning, and snaring of hundreds of elephants across Africa every month of every year. As the scale and pace of environmental destruction in elephant range states multiplies, intensive management of elephant populations becomes inevitable. Elephants are fenced, chased, driven, captured, translocated, abducted for sale to zoos and circuses, and killed in the name of elephant management and the reduction of human-elephant conflict.

The root cause of this conflict is not elephants, but increasing human populations and unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

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"By providing the Tembo elephants with close to 5,000 acres to freely roam and socialize, the Tembo Preserve will not only benefit the Tembo elephants but, by raising funds for conservation and educating visitors about their extraordinary attributes, will benefit their endangered African wild counterparts."

Nick Brandt, President and Co-founder

Big Life Foundation

Elephants Need Our Help

Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade have spiraled out of control. To date, poaching and trafficking in ivory is at the highest level in 25 years.


Ivory Ban

A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the African elephant population to about a million. But in 1999 and 2008, due to pressure from China, Japan, and southern Africa, CITES allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory. Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade have spiraled out of control once again. To date, poaching and trafficking in ivory is at the highest level in 25 years.

In 2014, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO) committing the United States to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade. However, the EO still allows for the export of worked ivory acquired before the 1989 ban, including antiques. This is significant because antique and pre-ban ivory, or the legal ivory trade, serves to mask the illegal ivory trade. Unless you are an expert, it is almost impossible to distinguish the difference between the two. The EO also does not cover intrastate trade; meaning that antique ivory and pre-ban ivory are still legal to sell within states. This is why state bans are critical. We are still awaiting the final results of the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act 4d rule, which will include further protections for African Elephants, including limitations on trophy hunting. Open for public comment last fall, over 1.3 million comments were heard.

According to a 2008 investigation, it was found that the United States was the number two importer of illegal ivory with top states including California, Hawaii and New York.

In September 2013, the Wildlife Conservation Society launched the 96 Elephants Campaign— named for the estimated 96 elephants killed each day—an effort focused on securing a U.S. moratorium on illegal ivory and leverage collective influence to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand worldwide. Currently, 96 Elephants has more than 200 partners including over 125 zoos; Oakland Zoo among them. In August of 2014, both New York and New Jersey banned the selling and purchasing of ivory within their states. California was proud to announce the passage of AB96 in October 2015, a near complete ban on ivory sales, including other species such as mammoth, narwhal, hippo, walrus, and whale, also including rhino horn. Wildlife Conservation Society is working on several other statewide bans. To stay up to date on legislation visit our partners here: www.96elephants.org.


Community Support is Essential to Habitat Protection

Human encroachment into natural areas where wild elephants live is a major issue facing their survival.


Protection in the Wild

In addition to ivory poaching, human encroachment into natural areas where wild elephants live is a major issue facing their survival. Global and grassroots NGOs (non-governmental organizations), African governments, field researchers, scientists and local communities are partnering to implement multi-layered approaches to protecting elephants:

  • Research: Elephants are extremely intelligent, emotional, and complex beings and understanding as much as we can about them is key to ensuring their survival. Research endeavors such as the Amboseli Elephant Research Project have been working for decades collecting data on the social organization, behavior, demography, ecological dynamics, spatial analyses and mapping, communication, genetics, human-elephant interactions and cognition of African elephants living in the wild.
  • Engaging Local Communities: Without community participation there is simply no future for wildlife. Incentives such as revenue-sharing from tourism, conservation jobs, enterprise development, compensation for loss of crops/property, and elevated social status help engage local communities in the conservation of the wild animals that share the land.
  • Rangers/Patrols: In order to conserve and manage elephants passing in and out of wildlife preserves, organizations such as Big Life recruit and train local residents to take on the courageous job of patrolling on foot and vehicle to check on their welfare and guard against poachers. High tech instruments such as drones, thermal imaging and tracking devices are used to assist their efforts.
  • Human–Elephant Conflict Resolution: Elephants are not only being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, but farmers plant crops that elephants like to eat. As a result, elephants frequently raid and destroy crops. They can also be very dangerous when retaliated against. Methods developed to deter elephants from crops include repellants, changing farming practices to make farms easier to defend, growing crops that elephants dislike, and land-use changes.
  • Advocacy: Conservation organizations such as ElephantVoices are dedicated to advocating for increased awareness of current issues facing elephants, launching campaigns for legislative protections, and fueling the passion to protect and preserve this magnificent species. If you are interested in local advocacy please visit www.marchforelephants.org, to see how you can get involved.
  • Education: Vital education programs have been launched in communities living in and around elephant habitat to help change perceptions and attitudes people have towards wild elephant-related problems and conservation.



How You Can Help

  • Learn about and support our Conservation Partners that are working to protect habitat for wild elephants and implementing solutions to fight poaching and human-elephant conflict.
  • Become a supporter of the 96 Elephants campaign, to create the strongest possible federal ivory ban in the U.S.
  • Do not buy ivory or other wildlife products. Be an elephant aware consumer.
  • Do not support organizations that exploit or abuse elephants and other animals for entertainment and profit.
  • Write an opinion piece or Op-Ed to your local newspaper, blog, or post on your social media about the plight of wild and captive elephants and how to help.
  • Hold a bake sale or other fundraiser and donate the money to an organization that helps elephants.

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