Researchers collected data from aerial and ground surveys conducted over the last four decades, to study trends in the African elephant populations within protected areas.
In total, the researchers estimated an elephant population of 7,750 individuals across the Sudano-Sahelian zone – an area of savanna that stretches across the African continent just below the Sahara desert. The authors of the study said this represents a minimum decline of 50% in just 40 years.
Half of populations unsustainable
Perhaps most alarmingly, half of the 23 African elephant populations studied were estimated to number fewer than 200 individuals – populations this small tend to go extinct within a few decades. The populations were also extremely fragmented. Meanwhile, elephant populations outside of protected areas, which were not covered in this study, are expected to fare even worse.
The worrying trend in West and Central African elephants sits in stark contrast to African elephant populations in southern regions, where many populations are increasing thanks to conservation efforts.
The study states that, “differences in the status of Africa’s elephants, with populations of least concern in southern Africa and threatened populations in the rest of the continent, perpetuate the disagreement regarding ivory trade and debates about ivory trade bans at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”
Civil conflicts and poaching for the illegal trade in ivory were identified by the researchers as key contributors to the decline of African elephants. However, the greatest threat is thought to be declining rainfall and increasing competition with livestock for land and water resources.
African elephants in the region are responsible for creating open habitats through grazing and trampling and also distribute seeds in their faeces, meaning the loss of elephants would impact numerous other species.
To preserve the remaining African elephants, the researchers propose that eight new protective habitat corridors be established as soon as possible, to connect the main elephant populations.
They also recommend that conservation organisations work with private sector wildlife initiatives and channel more wildlife revenues to local communities as a way of securing the future for elephants on Africa’s northern savannas.
Find out more about African elephant conservation at Save the Elephants.
Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author