Educational Series: Elephants Stand at the Precipice of Extinction

By Nick Engelfried
Elephants, majestic icons of the wilds of Africa and Asia, are the largest land animals alive today. Known for their intelligence and complex social behavior, they are also impressive for reasons that go well beyond their enormous size. Yet, these magnificent creatures could disappear within the next several years if we don’t take action now. Elephants have inspired and delighted millions of people all over the world–and today they need our help before they are driven to extinction.

There are three species of elephant, each with unique behaviors and physical attributes. The largest–reaching up to seven tons in fully grown adult males–is the African savannah elephant, whose herds wander the grasslands and woodlands that cover large parts of the world’s second-biggest continent. Savannah elephant societies revolve around female-dominated herds led by an elderly matriarch, who usually travels at the front of the group as they forage for food. Relations between herd members are highly complex, with different individuals having distinct personalities and social networks much as humans do. Adult male savannah elephants are generally solitary or travel in small groups together.

For many years, all elephants on the African continent were considered by scientists to belong to a single species divided into two separate subspecies. However, recently the “subspecies” known as the African forest elephant has been officially recognized as a genetically distinct species in its own right. Forest elephants are slightly smaller than their savannah-dwelling counterparts; and as their name suggests, they live in lush tropical rainforests such as those of the Congo Basin. Like savannah elephants, they have extremely dextrous trunks with a pair of flexible, fingerlike appendages at the end.

The third species is the Asian elephant, which was once found as far west as Iraq and Iran but now is confined mainly to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Weighing in at up to six tons, Asian elephants have proportionately smaller, rounder ears than the two African species and only a single “finger” at the end of the trunk. Like both species of African elephants, they have intricate social systems that center on female-dominated herds. However, Asian elephant herds are not led by a single matriarch. Scientists generally recognize four Asian elephant subspecies: Indian, Malayan, Sri Lankan, and Sumatran.

Elephants have famously good memories–although the adage that they never forget is not literally true. They are also known to show affection, grieve for their dead, and communicate using sound frequencies below the range human ears can detect. In fact, the more we learn about elephant behavior, the more complex and fascinating these animals turn out to be. Yet, there is still much we do not understand about them–especially Asian elephants, which have been less well studied in the wild than their African counterparts. Given the dangers facing all three species, we as a society must act quickly to ensure elephants don’t disappear before we have a chance to really understand them.

The biggest short-term threat to the existence of elephants is the trade in ivory products made from their tusks. WWF estimates that 20,000 elephants are brutally killed by poachers every year to feed the demand for ivory in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Although the trade in ivory from recently-killed elephants has long been banned both nationally and internationally, a thriving market in “legal” ivory products made before conservation laws went into effect has contributed to continued poaching. The problem is that legal and illegal ivory are in practice very difficult to distinguish, enabling poacher networks to pass their product off as legal. Fortunately, several countries have taken steps to close this disastrous loophole.

In 2016, in a major step forward for elephant survival, the United States imposed a ban on the sale of almost all ivory products. China followed in 2017, and several other European and Asian countries have put in place sweeping bans of their own. While it is too early to say for certain what the long-term effect of these actions will be, there are already some encouraging signs. A WWF study published in 2019 found that demand for ivory in China was down, with more people recognizing the harm it does to elephants. Now, other countries that still have legal ivory markets need to follow the lead of China and the United States by imposing bans on the trade in all its forms.

Ivory poaching may be the largest immediate danger to elephants–at least in Africa–but it is not the only trend threatening their survival. Habitat destruction is another major factor, especially in Southeast Asia where palm oil plantations and timber operations are rapidly displacing rainforests in one of the most biodiverse parts of the world. On the island of Sumatra, conservationists estimate 70% of elephant habitat has been destroyed by activities like palm oil plantation expansion since 1985. As a direct result, fewer than 3,000 Sumatran elephants are believed to survive.

Climate change is another looming menace to the future of elephants, compounding threats from habitat loss and poaching. African savannah elephants, many of whom already live in dry, drought-prone habitat where water is a rarity, may be at especially high risk. In East Africa, the projected effects of climate change include a 16% or more increase in drought–an existential threat to not only elephants, but countless other species including humans.

So, how can animal lovers help save elephants before it’s too late? The most important step you can take is to be a politically engaged advocate. Contact your members of Congress, and urge them to support funding for conservation programs that crack down on poaching and the illegal ivory trade. Get involved with organizations like the Rainforest Action Network, which are pressuring the palm oil industry to switch to more sustainable practices. And make sure your elected representatives at all levels of government know you want them to take action on climate change.

Beyond making your voice heard in the political arena, you can be an elephant-conscientious consumer. It should go without saying that animal lovers never buy any product made from ivory or elephant parts, even if it purports to be “legal.” If you encounter possible ivory-selling activity in person or on the internet, report it to organizations like the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which can make sure there is an investigation. Choosing products made with certified sustainable palm oil or palm oil alternatives can also have a positive effect on elephants and other wildlife affected by this destructive industry.

Few other species have captured as many people’s imaginations or inspired as much fascination and awe as elephants. Today, these intelligent giants of the natural world are threatened as never before–but positive developments like the decline in Chinese ivory demand show that sound conservation policies can have an effect. It is time for people around the world to come together to save elephants and ensure they have a future.

Photo credit: Dario Crespi

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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