Jul 1

African elephant populations on the savannas of West and Central Africa have halved over the last 40 years, according to a study published in PloS One.

Photo of African elephants walking in line

African elephants walking in line

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.

Photo of African elephant bull feeding in swamp

African elephant bull feeding in swamp

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).” 

Photo of African elephant calf walking

African elephant calf walking

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.

Photo of African elephant herd walking in line

African elephant herd walking in line

Protective corridors 

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. 

View more images and videos of the African elephant on ARKive. 

Find out more about African elephant conservation at Save the Elephants. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Doug Norris (July 2nd, 2011 at 4:32 am):

    I have, for a long time, considered Botswana to be the African Elephant capital of the world. This website show the spectacular growth in numbers since 1960. Give nature half a chance and it’s amazing what can happen.

    South Africa’s Kruger National Park is probably the best known wild life sanctuary in Southern Africa. They have the inverse problem experienced further north – there are too many elephants.

    The problem, as I understand it, is that traditional elephant migration paths have been cut off with development so elephant movement is restricted. This results in unsustainable local population increases. I have read that a scheme is being considered to create a migration path between Botswana and Kruger. If this ever happens it will be great step forward for conservation in the region.