Elephants are the largest land animal on earth. They’re also incredibly intelligent, caring, and have distinct personalities. Many can even recognize our faces! We know some of them by name: Horton, Dumbo, and Tarzan’s friend Tantor. In the real world, elephants are colossal, charismatic animals that are vital to the savannas of Africa and the dense jungles of India and Indonesia.
Although they seem to be untouchable by other animals because of their sheer size, elephants face many threats on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the most significant of these threats is habitat loss. Big animals need a lot of space, and these massive mammals are no exception. While humans expand development and cut down forests, elephants have less and less space to roam around in.
Another grave threat to elephants is poaching. Elephant ivory is prized in certain parts of the world, and some people go through great lengths to harvest the valuable material. Unfortunately for the elephants, this means hunting. More often than not, poachers strip the animal of its tusks and leave it for dead.
With such huge threats to this animal, we have to ask:
Of course, the answer to this question is much more complex than a simple yes or no. So, let’s break it down by species. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), There are 2 distinct species: the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). We’ll use information from the IUCN’s “Red List.” They are the world’s leading authority on determining whether or not an animal or plant is considered endangered.
The African elephant is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN in 2019. What does “vulnerable” really mean here? This classification is one step in the right direction from being endangered. Technically speaking, as of right now the African elephant is not “endangered.” However, a little over 20 years ago in 1996, the African elephant was considered endangered by the IUCN. Since then, its population has been increasing, causing the animal to come out of endangerment.
This is, of course, great news! African elephant populations are slowly growing, thanks to successful conservation initiatives in Africa. Lots of parks and reserves have been established, and many governments have cracked down on poaching.
However, we shouldn’t be complacent just because African elephants are doing better now than they were 20 years ago. They constantly face increasing pressure from illegal hunting and other conflicts with humans.
Unlike its African relative, the Asian elephant is “endangered” according to the IUCN in 2019. The threats that face this elephant are pretty much the same as those of the African species. However, deforestation and harvesting timber are both more rampant in Asian countries than in Africa. This leads to habitat fragmentation, which is when one large forest becomes several smaller, unconnected patches. If you’re an elephant, it’s nearly impossible to travel from patch to patch.
Aside from the threats of habitat loss, Asain elephant populations are declining. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to track populations and we don’t know much about them. What we do know is that they occupy only about 10% of their historic range, and each population is small and isolated.
You don’t have to be the next Jane Goodall or David Attenborough to help save animals. There are a couple simple things any average Joe (or Jane!) can do to help elephant conservation.
First, don’t buy ivory. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how much ivory makes it into the hands of ill-informed tourists. Don’t buy any products from stores or street vendors that sell ivory. Sometimes sellers claim that a souvenir is from an old stash or an antique – but this is usually false. Purchasing any ivory, antique or not, adds more fuel to the fire and strengthens the market for the illegal material.
Second, if you buy products sourced from Africa like coffee or wood, make sure they are fair-trade. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies products from Africa and Asia that don’t negatively impact elephants.
Third, you can donate directly to conservation organizations! Check out our top picks.
What else can we do to help save elephants? If you have any ideas, or other thoughts about elephants, let us know in the comments!