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    Elephant Conservation


Elephants are threatened by habitat destruction and degradation; poaching for ivory; and by retaliation for human-elephant conflict.  Until recent bans on the sale of ivory, poaching had been the most visible threat for African elephants, though some would argue that habitat loss was a key underlying cause.  While exact population numbers for elephants are always difficult to ascertain and subject to some controversy, most conservationists would agree that the number of African elephants was at the least cut in half during the massive ivory poaching period of the 1970’s and ‘80’s.  An international ban on trade in elephant ivory was agreed to in 1989 and went into effect in early 1990.

While tens of thousands of elephants were being killed annually for their ivory in Africa, the numbers of Asian elephants being killed was in the hundreds.  The major threats to Asian elephants are loss of habitat and the resultant human-elephant conflict.  Asian elephants are disappearing from vast areas where they were once plentiful.  For example, the number of elephants in Vietnam has declined from about 1,000 in 1990 to fewer than 100 in 2002.

Though levels of poaching have been lower in Asia, because only male Asian elephants have tusks, proportions of their population are being dramatically reduced in some regions.  Some areas of southern India report male:female ratios as low as 1:100.

Recently published DNA studies by Roca et al. in the August, 2001 issue of Science suggest that there are three distinct species of elephants. These are commonly known as the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), savannah (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana, and Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).  At this time, CITES still includes the forest elephant as an African loxodonta subspecies (Loxodonta africana cyclotis).  As Holly Dublin, Chair of the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN recently noted in the July-Dec. 2001 Pachyderm, "the process of  accepting new taxonomic distinctions is not in itself a science and can involve a protracted period of debate..."  Such distinctions are not trivial as they affect many laws and conservation issues.

You may be aware that rapid human population growth in the past century has resulted in massive destruction and degradation of elephant habitat. (see World Population Graph).  For example, the population of India1 increased from 252 million in 1911 to 1 billion in 2001.  In Africa, Kenya’s population growth has also been most dramatic.

Kenya Population Growth3

1900    1,300,000
1965  10,000,000
1985   20,000,000
2000   30,000,000
2025e  50,000,000

As a result, elephants and humans are increasingly in conflict as elephants continue their search for food.  You may be surprised to read of the levels of destruction caused by elephants.  In India alone, Bist1 reports that elephants kill some 170 people per year and damage 10,000-15,000 houses and 8 million to 10 million hectares (one hectare = 2.5 acres) of crops. 

Finally, Doug Chadwick, author of The Fate of the Elephant, succinctly expressed the need for elephant conservation in a letter he sent to the U.S. Congress in support of the Asian Elephant Conservation Act. 

Others have probably pointed out to you the value of elephants as an umbrella species. That is, by safeguarding forest tracts large enough to sustain Elephas maximus, we ensure sufficient habitat for countless smaller fauna from tigers and sloth bears to peacocks and emerald doves. The association between saving elephants and conserving biological diversity has an extra dimension. You see, the extraordinary variety of plant and animal species found in Asia's tropical foreststhe genetic bounty that could one day provide humanity with new sources of food, fiber, and pharmaceutical productsis in good part a direct result of having elephants in the ecosystem.

See the links below and on our Links page to learn more about elephant conservation and to read Chadwick's well written letter.


1 Nigam, B.C. 2002  Elephants of Jharkhand – Increasing Conflicts with Man,  The Indian Forester Vol. 128, p194
Bist, S.S.  2002  An Overview of Elephant Conservation in India, The Indian Forester Vol. 128,  p126-7

Lahmeyer, Jan 2002 Population Statistics
(source of data - chart by Hammatt)

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