Population & Threats

Population size

The most recent (AESR 2016) continental total, for both species combined, was 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. It is important to note that elephants do not necessarily remain within a single country; indeed, some 76% of the elephants reported in AESR 2016 are in shared, transboundary populations in all parts of Africa.

Population structure

In both African elephant species, their society is matriarchal, with adult females typically forming life-long bonds with their offspring, female relatives and, occasionally, unrelated “friends”. Savanna elephants tend to associate in larger kin-based families and other larger hierarchical groupings. 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 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.


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.