Elephants and the Reality of Extinction

Americans have a role to play in preserving Earth’s largest land mammals.

Recent census data reveals that wild elephant populations are in great jeopardy. To help elephants survive, Americans are participating in strong international partnerships that enforce ivory bans, support conservation, and develop local initiatives for humans and elephants to coexist. Even with such efforts, elephants may vanish from the wild in a few decades.

Estimated numbers of African and Asian elephants, 2016

Counting elephants is controversial. Differences of opinion are due in part to the difficulty in counting elephants in dense vegetation in difficult terrain, different survey techniques being used in different places, and a too-widely held belief that population monitoring is unimportant.

African elephant number

Asian elephant number

Counting elephants

Exactly how many elephants remain? We only have estimates, because counting these animals one by one is impossible. Savanna elephants roam across huge ranges. Foliage conceals forest elephants. But knowing their numbers is crucial for developing successful conservation strategies.

Savanna elephants
Courtesy of Billy Dodson/African Wildlife Foundation

African Forest Elephant

Courtesy of Hilde Vanleeuwe / © Wildlife Conservation Society

Counting elephants by air, 2016

Researchers for the Great Elephant Census, a project funded by American philanthropist Paul G. Allen, counted savanna elephants in eighteen African countries. They saw an estimated 352,271 animals on study sites.

Courtesy of Kelly Landen/Elephants Without Borders

Permit from government of Botswana for aerial survey, 2014

The Great Elephant Census (GEC) researchers reported sobering results in 2016. Elephant numbers showed a decline of about 30% between 2007 and 2014, with populations now shrinking 8% every year.

Courtesy of Elephants Without Borders

Permit from government of Angola for elephant census, 2015

Courtesy of Elephants Without Borders

It is not easy to live near elephants. Big and dangerous, they can cause serious damage to crops and human property. They can kill people. Reducing elephant-human encounters calls for creativity.

Ibo Nahonain"Gradually the elephants came here to Tapéguhé. They crossed our area, our territory, all the time, devastating our plantations, our fields, to such an extent that it really affected our ability to eat."
—Ibo Nahonain, village chief of Tapéguhé, Côte d'Ivoire, 2014

Relocating elephants, 2014

People and elephants endanger each other when living together. To help both survive, conservationists relocated elephants 300 miles from the village Tapéguhé to a national park in Côte d'Ivoire.

Courtesy of Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Field Guide, 2013

It is not easy to live near elephants. Big and dangerous, they can cause serious damage to crops and human property. They can kill people. To reduce these encounters, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society produced this brochure to warn locals about how to behave around elephants. The brochure also proved useful in Africa. [54 words]

Courtesy of Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Elephant collar with GPS tracking device, around 2014 

Tracking elephants informs decisions about the best way to protect them. In preparation for studying wild elephants in Myanmar, researchers tested this GPS collar on Shanthi, an elephant at the Smithsonian’s zoo. The GPS unit periodically transmits location data. It also sends a warning if an elephant is immobile for twenty-four hours, a sign it is likely dead.

Loan from Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute