Shrinking spaces for the world’s largest land animal
On World Elephant Day 2021, we celebrate the largest terrestrial animals on Earth and highlight the daunting challenges that these mammals face. Today, all three elephant species, the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana), occupy a fraction of their historical range.
Photo: Vivek Menon
Photo: Dr. Lydia Tiller
The three species have suffered sharp declines due to a significant increase in poaching, which continues to threaten populations. However, while the illegal trade in elephant ivory often dominates this conversation, other urgent threats loom, including habitat fragmentation and climate change. Sustained efforts in tackling the poaching crisis have led to a glimmer of hope with some elephant populations stable or increasing. As elephant populations recover, suitable habitats have been and are continuing to be rapidly lost through human pressures that are further compounded by the climate crisis: nearly two-thirds of the African continent still offers suitable habitat for elephants, but currently only 17% of that suitable habitat is available to them.
In addition to rapidly shrinking and increasingly fragmented habitats, climate change will exacerbate the redistribution of elephants, based on water and food availability. A recent study in Gabon showed that over a 30-year period, the amount of fruit available to African Forest Elephants dropped by more than 80% due to climate change affecting the trees. This correlated to a measurable loss of elephant body condition. This, in turn, could potentially lead to lower reproductive rates and less overall seed dispersal by the elephants, resulting in a vicious cycle of diminishing elephant health, declining elephant numbers, and a reduction in the quality of their own forest habitats as their food trees become ever rarer. Although only studied in Gabon, it is likely that the same phenomenon is occurring across the forested tropics of Africa and Asia.
Reduction in elephant habitat quality and increasing events such as droughts and floods will invariably lead to increased conflicts with growing human populations, who are also seeking reprieve from climate-induced changes in the environment. Human-elephant conflict is already a major concern and has the potential to escalate in future scenarios of habitat degradation and loss and changing climate.
Elephants are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and climate change, but there is no single solution. Careful land-use planning, community engagement, and political action are essential for harmonious human-elephant co-existence, such as developing agroindustry and infrastructure in ways that minimize impacts on elephant ranging patterns in order to avoid human-elephant conflict. Wildlife corridors are urgently required to allow elephants to move between habitats to access the resources they need. There are still possibilities for elephant range states in both Africa and Asia to plan their lands better, to designate lands for wildlife and to ensure connectedness of those areas. If we can capitalize on these opportunities, then there is still hope for the future of elephants.
The IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) and IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG), with support from the new Global Center for Species Survival (GCSS) in Indianapolis and others, are using the Species Conservation Cycle to assess the constantly changing status of elephants, develop and adopt conservation action plans and promote effective conservation strategies to protect elephants.
African Savanna Elephants (Loxodonta africana), Endangered.
African Savanna Elephants occur within 23 range states. The most recent continental estimate of African Elephants put both the Savanna and Forest species together, at over 415,000 animals, of which perhaps three-quarters are African Savanna Elephants. Over half of the Savanna species live in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) spanning Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Angola. In 2021, African Savanna Elephants were listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as over 60% of the population is estimated to have been lost since 1965 (two generations back - African Savanna Elephants have a generation time of about 25 years). The principal threat – as for the African Forest Elephant – has been poaching for ivory, but increasingly, development of agriculture, coupled with associated human-elephant conflict as suitable elephant habitat is gradually reduced, is resulting in ever-greater pressure on African Savanna Elephants across much of their range.
African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), Critically Endangered.
African Forest Elephants occur within 20 range states, with over 50% of the population in the small, forested country of Gabon, despite that nation only comprising 13% suitable elephant habitat. This species was in 2021 listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as more than 80% of the population is estimated to have been lost since 1984 (and a staggering 62% lost in the nine years from 2002 to 2011). African Forest Elephants have a much longer generation time (31 years) than African Savanna Elephants, meaning that they recover from population reductions three times more slowly. For African Forest Elephants, human-elephant conflict has been a much less widespread threat than poaching for ivory, but this is likely to increase and to create antipathy towards elephants in the areas where their range is contiguous with growing rural populations: it has been estimated that more than 70% of these animals live outside existing protected areas, mostly within selectively logged timber concessions and community forests.
Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus), Endangered.
There are now only about 48,000-50,000 Asian Elephants found in 13 range states. More than 60% of the wild population exists in India alone. Only four other countries - Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka - have more than 2,000 wild elephants. A recent study suggested that almost 42% of the present available habitat will be lost due to the combined effects of human pressure and climate change. The need to link fragmented habitats through corridors for movement remains a key challenge for Asian Elephant conservation. The other key challenge is increasing human-elephant conflict. India alone accounts for more than 400 human deaths and more than 100 elephant deaths annually due to conflict. Conflict is also growing in other Asian countries that still have sizeable elephant populations, due to reduced quality habitats. The confluence of these threats makes the already endangered Asian Elephant even more vulnerable in the long term. While cultural and religious associations with the Asian Elephant still allow some populations to thrive in South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, the species is in critical danger in Vietnam and Sumatra (Indonesia).
Contributed article by: Ben Okita-Ouma and Rob Slotow, Co-chairs AfESG; Lucy Vigne, AfESG' member; Fiona Maisels, AfESG' member; Vivek Menon, Chair AsESG; Sandeep Tiwari, AsESG' member; and Angela Yang, Mammals Conservation Coordinator, GCSS.