World Elephant Day: The highs and lows

By Rosie Awori and Adam Cruise

The plight of elephants has formed the subject of many debates and calls to action and yet, over the years, Africa continues to lose an exceptional number of elephants, mostly due to poaching for their tusks and human-induced habitat destruction. This year, as the world once again celebrates World Elephant Day, we take time reflect on this year’s effort to protect these keystone species – the highs and the devastating lows.

High: Distinction of two African elephant species

In April 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) finally agreed to a distinction that many scientists and biologists have been proposing for years. They agreed that forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are genetically distinct from savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana). Previously all African elephants were listed as savanna elephants. Despite decades of scientific inertia on this distinction, local forest communities have known and recognised the differences between these two species for millennia. One obvious example is that forest elephants are noticeably smaller in size with bulls only reaching a maximum of 2.5 metres compared to a shoulder height of up to 4 metres for savanna elephant bulls, and their tusks are noticeably straighter and thinner, best adapted to weave through the dense African jungle. 

The positive effect of this distinction means that African elephants now have separate classifications on their IUCN Red Data list – the African forest elephant is classified as ‘critically endangered’ while the African savanna elephant is classified as ‘endangered’. Both are now recognised as more threatened than the previous listing that stated that both species were ‘vulnerable’. This distinction, and re-classification of their population statistics, is an important step in elephant conservation as there is a sharper focus on their plight. Management and policy making around these two species will also have separate approaches, which will be more effective in the long-term.  These differing approaches will be particularly important in overall habitat protection in countries that have both savanna and forest elephants, notably in the Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

High: South Africa, Gabon, Chad, Kenya, Mali and Mozambique

In June, South African Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy, tabled a policy stating South Africa would no longer push for the international sale of ivory at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as it had always previously done. Although not yet enacted into law, it is a BIG step in the right direction. 

In July, Gabon’s Vindo National Park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the nation’s success in defending biodiversity and challenging climate change. The park is the second nature reserve — after Lope Park in 2007 — to be listed in this small central African country, which is 90 percent covered by forest and known for efforts to preserve its natural heritage, especially forest elephants.

Chad’s elephants in Zakouma National Park seem to be doing well thanks to a combined efforts from government and African Parks Network while Kenya announced it reduced elephant poaching to almost 90% over the past decade. This was all thanks to government action through better law enforcement and prosecution. Kenya also recorded a boom in baby elephants in Amboseli National Park.  

By all accounts, the Mali Elephant Project, by working with local communities protecting desert-adapted elephants is proving to be remarkably successful. There has been almost zero poaching and the government has approved a large extension to the Gourma Elephant Reserve. Mali’s elephant population is only one of two populations of desert-adapted elephants (the other is in Namibia).

In August, Mozambican President, Filipe Nyusi, announced that, for the third consecutive year, no elephants have been poached in the Niassa National Reserve in the far north of the country, or in the Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique. He accredited this to a steady transformation of government to better protect its elephants. Niassa had previously lost over half its 10,000-strong herd of elephants in the five years between 2008 and 2013.

High and Low: Domestic ivory markets

A major driving factor for the slaughter of African elephants has been the human desire for ivory. It is worth noting that since the inception of World Elephant Day nine years ago, significant domestic ivory markets throughout the world such as in the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and even China have been shut down.  Other countries like Kenya, Chad, Philippines and France have in the past destroyed their ivory stockpiles to ensure that no more ivory enters the marketplace. This year, a result of the sustained pressure from the global community, the European Union moved to severely restrict ivory sales to only a few antique exceptions.

However, Japan which still has a large domestic ivory market, is yet to close theirs. In July during the Tokyo Olympics, there were calls from various quarters including former Secretaries of State, Hilary Clinton and James A. Baker III, to shut down their market. The reduction of poaching across Africa will only occur if Japan also shuts down its ivory market, the only significant legal market in the world. Research has conclusively shown that any existing ivory market opens the possibilities of illegal smuggling and, as a result, an increase in elephant poaching. This year, it was discovered that traffickers in ivory are preferring ‘pink ivory’, which specifically comes from the now critically endangered forest elephant.  A recent study showed that 19% of Chinese travelers to Japan planned to purchase ivory during their trip.

High and Low: Migratory corridors and habitat loss

A worrying threat to the future of elephants is the rapid loss of natural habitat they exist in. Ancient migratory routes continue to be disrupted by human activities such as development and building across elephant corridors. In Kenya, an avocado agricultural consortium was thankfully prevented from blocking an important elephant corridor in the Tsavo area when it wanted to convert a natural migratory corridor to avocado groves. Humans encroaching on these routes interfere with how elephants contribute to biodiversity.

Low: Namibian live export of elephants

On 3rd December 2020, the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) in a printed advertisement to sell 170 ‘high-value’ free-roaming elephants from four commercial farming areas in the northern part of the country.

Two of these areas are in the arid north-west of the country where the continent’s second population of desert elephants exist. The desert elephant population in this region could be on the verge of collapse thanks to years of drought. Of major concern are the extremely low numbers of breeding bulls and high infant mortality rate (100% since 2014). There is a big question whether the MEFT’s plan to remove 80 live elephants (as advertised by the government) from this area is viable. A removal of that number could have severe implications on an already fragile and isolated desert elephant population.

And yet, on 11 August 2021 and a day before World Elephant Day, the MEFT issued a press release stating that ‘the Ministry has successfully sold 57 of the 170 elephants’ while ’42 will be exported out of Namibia’. If the elephants are indeed captured from this region, the world will likely see off the last of Namibia’s famed desert elephants.

Conclusion: Pedal to the metal

Despite African elephants receiving more attention from the scientific community by adjusting their IUCN Red Data listing calling for more attention as well as stronger government policy in the European Union, South Africa, Chad, Gabon, Mali and Mozambique, elephant populations are still reeling from continued domestic ivory markets, habitat loss, poaching for their tusks and the increasing desire to sell live animals beyond their natural habitat.

The world, therefore, cannot afford to take its foot off the pedal when it comes to saving one of the planet’s most iconic species. In fact, more than ever before it’s time to put the foot down to the floor.

Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist and author with a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South AfricaHe is the author of ‘It’s Not About The Bats‘, a book about coronavirus and conservation and how we must re-set our relationship with nature.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.


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