African elephants are the world's largest land animals. The biggest can be up to 7.5m long, 3.3m high at the shoulder, and 6 tonnes in weight. The trunk is an extension of the upper lip and nose and is used for communication and handling objects, including food.
Tusks, which are large modified incisors that grow throughout an elephant's lifetime, occur in both males and females and are used in fights and for marking, feeding, and digging. The other notable feature of African elephants is their very large ears, which allow them to radiate excess heat.
There are two subspecies – the larger savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana africana), which roams grassy plains and woodlands, and the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), which lives in the equatorial forests of central and western Africa. Savannah elephants are larger than forest elephants, and their tusks curve outwards. In addition to being smaller, forest elephants are darker and their tusks are straighter and downward pointing.
The complex social structure of elephants is organized around a system of herds composed of related females and their calves. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males. In the savannah subspecies, each family unit usually contains about 10 individuals, although several family units may join together to form a 'clan' consisting of up to 70 members led by a female. Forest elephants live in smaller family units.
African elephants once roamed across most of the continent from the northern Mediterranean coast to the southern tip. But they are now confined to a much smaller range. Savannah elephants occur in eastern and southern Africa, with the highest densities found in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. The forest elephant is found in the equatorial rainforest zone of west and central Africa, where relatively large blocks of dense forest still remain.
Since 1979, African elephants have lost over 50% of their range and this, along with massive poaching for ivory and trophies over the decades, has seen the population drop significantly. Back in the early part of the 20th century, there may have been as many as 3-5 million African elephants. But there are now around 415,000.
Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas. However, less than 20% of African elephant habitat is under formal protection.
ThreatsDespite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers. Their ivory tusks are the most sought after, but their meat and skin are also traded. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewellery – China is the biggest consumer market for such products.
The ban in international trade was introduced in 1989 by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and it allowed some populations to recover, especially where elephants were adequately protected. But there has been an upsurge in poaching in recent years, which has led to steep declines in forest elephant numbers and some savannah elephant populations.
Thriving but unmonitored domestic ivory markets continue in a number of states, some of which have few elephants of their own remaining. Insufficient anti-poaching capacity, weak law enforcement and corruption compound the problem in some countries.
Meanwhile, as the human population expands, more land is being converted to agriculture. So elephant habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented. This means elephants and people come into contact more often, and conflicts occur. Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods – and may even kill people. Elephants are sometimes killed in retaliation. With human populations continuing to grow across their range, habitat loss and degradation will remain major threats to elephants' survival.
While some populations of African elephant are secure and expanding, primarily in southern Africa, numbers are continuing to fall in other areas, particularly in central Africa and parts of East Africa. With an estimated 415,000 elephants left on the continent, the species is regarded as vulnerable, although certain populations are being poached towards extinction.
It is critical to conserve African elephants since they play such a vital role in their ecosystems as well as contributing towards tourism and community incomes in many areas. By helping protect elephants, we’re helping conserve their habitat, supporting local communities, and making sure natural resources are available for generations to come.
Adapted from: http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/elephants/african_elephants/
The map above shows the distribution of African elephants in 1979.
The map above shows the distribution of African elephants in 2016.
Scientific Research Articles
Links for research:
In the HHMI “Click and Learn” you learned that investigators can use DNA to identify where a piece of ivory originated. By collecting elephant dung samples, researchers like Sam Wasser at University of Washington have created genetic profiles for the many different elephant populations found throughout central Africa. Once the dung samples have been analyzed in the lab, different single tandem repeats (STRs) in the genome are identified as helpful in distinguishing populations. The unique allele frequencies of a population across many STRs act as a genetic ID tag which is then stored in a database. By accessing this database and analyzing the DNA of seized ivory, authorities can pinpoint which population of elephants it came from, giving insight into the location of the poachers and trends in their behavior.