Poachers killing Africa’s elephants for ivory have brought them to the brink of extinction, with the continent’s two species today officially classified as endangered for the first time.
“It’s an important moment, it’s a serious moment,” says Kathleen Gobush at US-based non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, who is a member of the African Elephant Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN now lists African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) as critically endangered – the final step before being extinct in the wild – and the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) as endangered. Both were previously considered vulnerable, one level down from endangered.
The Red List assessment by the IUCN is the first since Africa’s elephants were deemed to be two distinct species, following mounting genetic evidence gathered in the past decade. Forest elephant numbers have dropped by at least 86 per cent between 1984 and 2015, and their savannah cousins by 60 per cent between 1965 and 2015, according to data from 495 sites. There are thought to be around 415,000 African elephants left in total. That may sound a lot, but risk of extinction is measured by the speed of declines.
The main reason Africa’s elephants are on the verge of vanishing is the ongoing illegal wildlife trade, particularly to fuel demand in South-East Asia. While poaching peaked in 2011, it hasn’t stopped. “Poaching is a threat to the animals across their range and in some areas more than others. It’s still a concern. It’s still unsustainable in many areas,” says Gobush.
Demand from South-East Asia for elephant tusks isn’t the only pressure on the animals. Growing human populations are also driving habitat loss and degradation. Botswana and Gabon are two bright spots where political will, conservation funding and less dense human populations mean elephant numbers are either stable or growing.
Declines will take years to turn around. The elephants – the forest ones in particular – have a slow reproductive rate, with gestation taking around two years.
Gobush says it isn’t possible to speculate how long it will take for the elephants to become extinct, but there is still time to act. “This assessment will hopefully renew attention on these two species and will garner new support in terms of monitoring, stopping the poaching and stopping the demand for ivory,” she says.
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