The difference between “endangered” and “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List is subtle, but essentially it has to do with a species’ odds of survival. Endangered species have a risk of going extinct in the not-too-distant future, whilst vulnerable species generally have enough numbers left to give us time to intervene and save them. Although African elephants were moved from the endangered to the vulnerable list in 2004, poaching levels have risen drastically since, and the savannah elephant population has dropped by 30% over the last 7 years, while the forest elephant (now classified as a separate species) could be extinct within a decade!
Today marks the seventh time that World Elephant Day (WED) has been celebrated. It was launched in 2012 to create awareness across the globe of the urgent plight of both African and Asian elephants, and is a day in which knowledge and solutions for better management solutions of elephant populations can be shared. WED is supported by over 65 different wildlife organisations.
A visit to some of Southern Africa’s more famous wildlife areas can give one a skewed idea of what is happening to elephant populations across the continent. The Greater Limpopo National Park and adjacent private reserves boast a population that is well beyond what was once declared to be the area’s carrying capacity, and the northern parts of Botswana contain Africa’s highest elephant population. With both of these being major ecotourism hotspots, the temptation can be to equate the overall status of the African population to that of the main game parks, but this would be a grossly inaccurate representation.
The reality is that although a few conservation pockets maintain more-than-healthy elephant numbers, the continent-wide population is in serious decline. From a few million elephants at the turn of the 20th century to roughly 400,000 today (although some believe this figure to be too high), the UN is now estimating that up to 100 elephants are killed each day in Africa for the illegal ivory trade. Considering that this figure doesn’t factor in habitat loss or any other of the multitude of reasons why elephant populations are shrinking, and it suddenly becomes clear that the African elephant is in trouble. Conservationists even warned in 2008 that if the current poaching rate continued, elephants could be extinct by 2020!
Thankfully I’m fairly certain that this date is inaccurate, or at least has been readjusted by now. We aren’t going to lose all our elephants in the next two years. Because the news is not all bad. In South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, elephant populations have continued to rise. The problem in many of these countries’ parks is now an overpopulation of the pachyderms!
In Zakouma National Park in Chad, the last 8 years have only seen 24 elephants poached, and the once-decimated population (down from 4000 to around 400 in a decade!) is well on the road to recovery, thanks to stringent anti-poaching efforts on the ground. The total in the park is now 559, with 109 calves under 3 years old being counted during the April aerial survey.
In a piece on Zakouma National Park for the Independent in May of this year, Rachel Nuwer reported the following:
It suddenly struck me just how drastically the elephants’ world has changed in the last few years. People — formerly their hunters and killers — are now their protectors and saviours.This fact did not appear to be lost on the elephants: relaxed and accommodating, they seemed content to share their space with us.
There are lessons to be learned here for the whole of Africa. Rhinos have been reintroduced to Zakouma, so confident is the international community in the park and the security it can provide for its wildlife. Zakouma management has a strict policy of exposing local communities – particularly children – to the park’s wildlife and the importance of its survival, and with human-wildlife conflict being a major cause of declining populations in other species as well, community interest in the continued existence of wildlife all over Africa is crucial.
World Elephant Day aims to create awareness about the plight of these magnificent creatures. Social media feeds will be abuzz with stories and statistics, and it is all too easy to simply scroll past the majority of them; maybe pausing on a picture or two, but for the most part remaining oblivious to what is really happening to one of Africa’s most iconic species. We urge you to look a little deeper. Pause, reflect, and if possible, get involved.
Sponsor a calf at an elephant orphanage. Donate to conservation efforts in Zakouma. Knowledge is the most powerful weapon with which we can arm ourselves in the fight to save the elephants. Simply by doing some research, spreading the message and visiting Africa to witness these incredible creatures, you are already making a contribution…