Published Aug. 11, 2021
The majestic elephants that roam the African and Asian continents are the largest terrestrial animals on Earth, yet these animals are not impervious to challenges, particularly with continuing habitat loss that is now escalated by climate change. 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.
While the illegal trade in elephant ivory often in the news, successful efforts in tackling the poaching crisis have led to a glimmer of hope with some elephant populations stable or increasing. However, as elephant populations recover, suitable habitats are being rapidly lost through human pressures, primarily land conversion and development. Two-thirds of the African continent still offers suitable habitat for elephants, yet only 17 percent of that is available for elephants.
In addition to rapidly shrinking and increasingly fragmented habitats, climate change drives changes in elephant distribution, 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 percent due to climate change affecting the trees. This matched a measurable loss of body condition in the elephants and potentially lower elephant reproductive rates. And because elephants are important seed dispersers, this cycle could trigger a detrimental downward spiral.
Habitat loss and extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, will invariably lead to increased conflicts with growing human settlements that are also seeking reprieve from climate-induced changes in the environment. Human-elephant conflict major concern and has the potential to escalate in future scenarios of changing climate and unpredictable weather events.
The species that’s familiar to guests at the Indianapolis Zoo, African savanna elephants occur within 23 countries or “range states”. The most recent population estimate of both African species is just more than 415,000 animals, of which about three-quarters are African savanna elephants. African savanna elephants are endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as more than 60 percent of the population is estimated to have been lost since 1965. The principal threat for both African species has been poaching for ivory, but increasingly, agricultural development, 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 occur within 20 range states, with more than half of the population in the small, forested country of Gabon, despite that nation only comprising 13 percent suitable elephant habitat. More than 80 percent of the population is estimated to have been lost since 1984. For African forest elephants, human-elephant conflict has been a much lesser threat than poaching for ivory, but this is likely to increase where their range is contiguous with growing rural populations. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of these animals live outside existing protected areas, mostly within selectively logged timber concessions and community forests.
There are now only about 48,000-50,000 Asian elephants found in 13 range states. Over 60 percent of the wild population exists in India alone and only four other countries — Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka — have more than 2,000 wild elephants. A recent study suggests that almost 42 percent 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.
Elephants are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and climate change, but there is no single solution. There are still possibilities for countries to better manage their lands and to ensure habitat connectivity for elephants, especially in light of climate change predictions. If we can capitalize on opportunities, then there is still hope for the future of elephants. Conservationists are working together within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) to find solutions. The African Elephant Specialist Group and the Asian Elephant Specialist Group with support from others, such as the new Global Center for Species Survival in Indianapolis, are using the Species Conservation Cycle to assess the constantly changing status of elephants, develop and adapt conservation action plans and promote effective conservation strategies to protect elephants.
This blog was a collaboration between experts with the Global Center for Species Survival, the African Elephant Specialist Group, and the Asian Elephant Specialist Group. A longer form version of this article is available on the IUCN website.
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