Africa Has Lost a Third of Its Elephants in Just 7 Years

New research shows that poachers are killing off 8 percent of savanna elephants a year while the number of forest elephants has fallen 62 percent since 2002.

An elephant lies dead in the grasslands of Zakouma National Park in Chad after poachers fired automatic weapons into a herd of elephants to kill them for their ivory. (Photo: Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Aug 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Earlier this week, the hacked-up bodies of at least 26 elephants were discovered in Botswana’s heavily protected Chobe National Park, the largest and most brutal poaching event the park has ever experienced.

This shocking slaughter is just the latest incident in the poaching crisis that has devastated the populations of both African elephant species. New data published Wednesday reveal that poachers killed off 30 percent of Africa’s savanna elephants between 2007 and 2014—about 144,000 animals—and that their numbers now continue to fall at an additional 8 percent per year.

Meanwhile, a second study found that the second pachyderm species, African forest elephants—which lost 62 percent of their population between 2002 and 2011—will require at least a century to recover because they breed significantly slower than thought. Scientists estimate that fewer than 100,000 forest elephants remain.

The savanna elephant numbers were the result of a three-year, 18-nation aerial survey conducted by the Great Elephant Census, funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen and his family. The census now estimates that about 352,000 savanna elephants remain, down from 1.3 million in 1979.

(Map: Courtesy Paul G. Allen Project)

“Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species,” Allen said in a statement.

Although the census found that 84 percent of savanna elephants live within officially protected areas, it also noted that they offered little protection and that elephant carcasses were frequently observed in national parks and other supposedly secure areas.

“The Great Elephant Census has been an amazing feat of technology and science working together for wildlife,” said Tanya Sanerib a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned to list both African elephant species as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act. “Unfortunately, the results reveal that elephant populations are declining at a shocking rate, and declining more severely than we anticipated. The data now clearly shows that if we don’t act immediately to stop poaching, close ivory markets, and extend the strictest protections to both savannah and forest elephants, we’ll lose these iconic creatures forever.”

RELATED: Elephants Win: Hong Kong Moves to Crush Ivory Trade

The poaching crisis has hit forest elephants—which have only recently been recognized as a separate species—particularly hard. The new research into their demographics finds that female forest elephants do not typically breed until they are about 23 years old and only give birth once every five to six years. Savanna elephants, by comparison, start breeding at age 12 and can produce calves as often as every three years.

“This is worse than we expected,” said George Wittemyer, chair of the scientific board of Save the Elephants and a professor in wildlife conservation at Colorado State University. “We didn’t realize how sensitive these animals are until now. We were already hyper-concerned about forest elephants, but this knocks the ground out from under their feet.”

Wittemyer said forest elephants live in regions that severely restrict their ability to recover from poaching. Even though they are surrounded by trees, most of the food they produce is consumed by birds, monkeys, and other arboreal creatures, leaving little nutritional value for terrestrial creatures, such as elephants. “Ground animals get the last pick,” he said.

Both of the studies will come into play in the coming weeks as conservationists prepare for this weekend’s International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in Hawaii and the annual meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in late September in Johannesburg.

This second meeting may be the more important of the two, as Namibia and Zimbabwe have proposed reestablishing limited legal trade in ivory, which has been banned since 1989. Both countries argue that their elephant populations are healthy enough for ivory from their animals to be legally traded. (The Great Elephant Census counted about 82,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, an overall decline of 6 percent but with declines of 74 percent in one region. It did not survey the elephants in Namibia.)

Wittemyer said that ivory trade legalization would be a mistake. “We need to push aside the ivory trade debate until we deal with the fundamental problems of elephant poaching throughout Africa.” He added that the two new studies should help deflate the legalization debate. “The best scientific information is now on the table,” he said. “That should lead to a better understanding of the problems that elephants face.”