Article | 27 Sep, 2015

Updated African Elephant Database reveals declining elephant populations

"Definite" plus "Probable" African Elephant numbers have decreased from approximately 550,000 to 470,000 between 2006 and 2013, according to the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group’s (AfESG) latest update of the African Elephant Database (AED). The AED is the repository of African Elephant survey data from range state governments, NGOs, and other sources of expertise.

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Photo: Esther Birchmeier

These new data are viewable at, alongside information on the sources of the elephant number estimates, the areas they cover, and the various survey types represented.

This most recent update includes data from surveys that were conducted on or before 31 December 2013, and follows the longstanding, rigorous guidelines of the AfESG Data Review Working Group in categorizing elephant numbers as "Definite", "Probable", "Possible", and "Speculative". Though the AfESG continues to collect and enter data from 2014 and 2015, these data will not be integrated into the summary totals until processing and review procedures are completed.

While the decline in the number of "Definite" plus "Probable" elephants almost certainly reflects a genuine reduction in elephant populations, the picture varies across the sub-regions. The recorded number of "Definite" plus "Probable" elephants in Central Africa has changed little but this is because new populations (one of which has subsequently declined) were surveyed after 2006, so they were not included in the 2006 update. That the numbers stayed similar with the inclusion of these new areas supports the evidence for a decrease in the elephant population of Central Africa. In Eastern Africa, where a higher proportion of the populations have been surveyed, the decrease in numbers from 2006 to 2013 provides further substantiation of the many recent reports in the popular press.

Data from 2014, which have not yet been entered into the AED, show that several additional populations have also experienced devastating losses. The decline in elephant numbers appears to be primarily a result of increased ivory poaching pressure. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to landscape-level land use changes also pose significant immediate and long-term challenges to elephant conservation.

Despite these pressures and losses, the relative situation among the four sub-regions remains substantially the same as in 2006. Southern Africa continues to host the majority of the continent’s known elephants, and also has the largest proportion of elephant range compared to the other sub-regions. West Africa has the smallest range and the fewest elephants. Central Africa has a slightly larger range but many fewer "Definite" and "Probable" elephants than Eastern Africa, which also reflects the use and accuracy of different survey methodologies.

For the many conservation interventions being designed and implemented to protect the African Elephant and its habitat, the AED can serve as a vital monitoring tool. Data from the AED will be presented to policymakers at the next CITES Standing Committee meeting in January 2016, as the AfESG is mandated to report on the status of Africa’s elephants.

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