Few species are as iconic as the African elephant, the world’s largest terrestrial mammal. With long lifespans, high intelligence, and complex social structures, elephants evoke powerful emotions in people. Long pursued for their ivory, elephants have been increasingly exploited in recent years by certain environmental groups that rely on them for fundraising.
We are inundated almost daily with fundraising appeals telling us that African elephants are on the edge of extinction. One group, calling itself a science-based conservation organization, claims that 96 elephants are killed every day for their ivory–a staggering 35,000 elephants annually. This claim has been made for several years, despite the lack of supporting scientific evidence. Another group claims that elephants will be extinct in the wild in fewer than ten years.
The African elephant is categorized as Vulnerable on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, not Endangered, and certainly not Critically Endangered, despite the language that some groups use in their fundraising appeals.
SCI Foundation believes in science rather than scare tactics. That’s why, as an IUCN member, we proudly support the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG), which maintains and analyzes the African Elephant Database (AED). The AED is the largest repository of data for any species on earth, and for more than 25 years it has served as the clearinghouse for elephant population data.
Last year, the AfESG released the “African Elephant Status Report 2016,” their first comprehensive update on the status of African elephants since 2007. The ever-pessimistic media rushed forth to misrepresent the findings of the 2016 status report. Most led with headlines like “only 415,000 African elephants remain.” Not only is this claim untrue, it’s also unscientific, yet many groups claiming to be science-based repeated it as fact.
Let’s lay the facts bare. The report says:
“The estimated number of elephants in areas surveyed in the last ten years in Africa is 415,428 ± 20,100 at the time of the last survey for each area. There may be an additional 117,127 to 135,384 elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. Together, this…is 62% of the estimated known and possible elephant range. There remains an additional 38% of range for which no elephant population estimates are available…”
Nowhere does the report say, “only 415,000 elephants remain.” The range of 415,428 ± 20,100 in recently surveyed areas means that 395,328 to 435,528 elephants exist at a minimum. When we add this to the additional 117,127 to 135,384 elephants estimated to exist in areas that have not been recently surveyed, we arrive at a minimum of 512,455 elephants and a possible total of 570,912. But keep in mind that only 62% of the African elephant range has any estimate at all. A full 38% of the range has NEVER been surveyed.
To be sure, Africa has lost thousands of elephants to poachers in recent years. We can’t pretend that poaching hasn’t had a severe impact on elephants. The AfESG estimates that in the period between the 2007 and 2016 status reports, the overall population declined by approximately 118,000 elephants. That is definitely cause for concern, but it hardly paints the picture of a species on the brink of extinction.
SCI Foundation is an optimistic conservation organization. Our mission is grounded in science, and we don’t rely on scare tactics. Instead, we choose to focus on conservation success stories.
The simple truth is that over half a million African elephants still roam the continent, and they are not headed for extinction anytime soon. The vast majority of these elephants are found in secure populations in southern Africa, which have been mostly unaffected by poaching. Around 75% of the elephants in southern Africa are found within the vast Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA)—an area larger than the state of California. KAZA links a secured habitat network of national parks and hunting concessions across five nations in southern Africa.
It is no coincidence that countries that have embraced the principles of sustainable use have also seen the largest growth in elephant numbers. While it has experienced some localized poaching, Zimbabwe still houses a very secure population of over 80,000 elephants, which is far more than its ecologists estimate the habitat can support. Namibia’s elephant population has grown by 150% since 2006, thanks in part to solid anti-poaching protection, which SCI Foundation proudly supports.
SCI Foundation is proud to partner with the African Elephant Specialist Group to ensure that the best available science is used to support conservation policy. So the next time you hear someone tell you that Africa’s elephants are “critically endangered” or headed for extinction, arm yourself with the facts and help set the record straight.