There are 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with elephant populations. Of the two main taxa, savanna elephants are found primarily in Eastern Africa (8 countries) and Southern Africa (9 countries), with forest elephants living mainly in the Congo Basin of Central Africa (7 countries). West Africa (13 countries) has elephants in both savanna and forest habitats. The elephant population of Mauritania has disappeared since 1989, while those of Senegal and Sierra Leone are under severe threat and at very low numbers.
Elephant populations in West Africa are distributed in small patches of highly fragmented habitat; while available habitat is more continuously distributed in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, fragmentation is becoming an increasing problem in all regions.
African elephants occupy a wide range of habitats, from near-desert in Namibia and Mali, through various types of semi-arid savanna ecosystem across much of the continent, to tropical forests in Central Africa.
Recent genetic and other findings support the designation of two species of African elephant: the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). However, two species have yet to be formally recognized by the IUCN, in part because of known hybridization; the species designation is currently under review by the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AESG). For this reason, CITES also recognises a single African species in its Identification Manual. In Southern Africa, only the savanna form is present.
Role of the species in its ecosystem
African elephants play a keystone role in shaping the structure of forests, woodlands and savanna, creating spatial heterogeneity and landscape-level diversity, dispersing seeds and facilitating access to water for a range of other species. The loss of such keystone megafauna from ecosystems could have profound and long-lasting negative effects on ecological structure and function. When confined by artificial barriers such as fences or land use blocking movement corridors, this habitat modification role may be seen as locally excessive in relation to the conservation of desirable plant and animal species.
Habitat loss, through conversion of forests, savanna and corridors to plantation, subsistence agriculture and settlement is the most significant long-term threat to elephant populations. The AESG report of 2016 reports a steady loss of elephant range, although it also points out that changes to date cannot distinguish between contraction in true elephant range and changes/ improvements in the way range is estimated. The AESG report of 2016 reports recent range expansion in selected sites in Kenya and Botswana only.
The most recent continental population total is 415,428 (+/- 20,111). However, important areas that are difficult to survey are under-represented in this total, such as continuous forests in Gabon and Republic of Congo, to name a few. However, elephants do not necessarily remain in a single country, especially in southern Africa around northern Botswana, Namibia, southern Angola and Zambia and north-eastern Zimbabwe. on a continental scale this area, known as the Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) transfrontier conservation area contains some 75% of total African elephant numbers. There is some doubt over the reliability of national population totals reported for the KAZA countries.
African elephants are matriarchal with adult females typically forming life-long families and other hierarchical groupings on the basis of kinship. Males disperse from natal family groups at maturity and form bonds with other males or live solitarily. The mean age of adults in and the social structure of elephant family groups are disrupted by poaching, which first targets the oldest adult animals with the largest tusks. Such selective killing results in a cascade of behavioural, physiological and reproductive effects on the surviving elephant population. Since the oldest females, the matriarchs, are the repositories of knowledge of social relationships and ecological hazards and rewards, their irreversible loss affects the survival chances of entire families. The removal of the most successful adult bulls is likely to increase reproductive skewness and reduce genetic diversity in the surviving populations. The negative effect of drastic depletion of both females and male elephants on genetic diversity has been well documented in Uganda, which suffered massive losses during the 1970s-80s poaching crisis.
Overall, African elephant populations are declining. These declines have been attributed primarily to a surge in poaching. While recent declines have been notable across all regions of Africa, the intensity of declines is uneven, with “hotspots” apparent in each region.
A separate compilation and modelling of survey data for Central Africa has shown that for forest elephants “population size declined by 62% between 2002–2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range.”
An independent analysis published in 2014 of trends across Africa produced an estimate of a 3% reduction in the continental population for the single year 2011, and approximately 100,000 elephants lost to poaching in 2010-2012.
Approximately 90% of savanna elephant populations were surveyed systematically in 2014-2015 by The Great Elephant Census (GEC)41, a continent-wide programme of aerial surveys funded by Paul G Allen Philanthropies and working in collaboration with national governments and a number of NGOs. The results of the program estimated a decline of 30% in 18 countries since 2007, with the annual rate of decline as high as 8% during 2010-2014.
The Southern Africa region as a whole experienced a decline during 2006-2015 of 8.6%, equating to almost 30,000 elephants on the basis of updated estimates for sites where comparable survey techniques were employed. In particular, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique had declines of 15%, 10% and 34% respectively.
Across the continent, the long-term threat to elephants is the loss or conversion of habitat through human expansion into elephant range, associated human-elephant conflict and the impacts of climate change.
In Central African forests, the impacts of forestry activities including both deforestation (habitat loss) and the building of roads (increasing human access) pose serious long-term and ongoing threats. However, the immediate, more critical short-term threat in all regions is high levels of killing driven by the ivory trade.
Data from the MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) program – the primary source of data on levels of elephant poaching in Africa – indicates that by 2011, poaching reached the highest levels since the program began in 2002, with a moderately declining trend thereafter. However, poaching levels remain high and unsustainable. An analysis of data published in 2014 concluded that poachers killed 40,000 elephants in 2011 alone, and in just 3 years (2010-2012), 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa for their ivory.
All African elephant populations in all regions are at risk. The most recent MIKE analysis that examines data through the end of 2017 and reported by the CITES Secretariat in August 2018, shows that poaching levels remain unsustainable overall and especially in West, Central and Southern regions.