If we don’t act now, the African elephant could have a similar fate to the wooly mammoth within a few decades.
A new campaign by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has claimed that the African elephant could be extinct by 2040 unless urgent action is taken.
By their estimates, the African elephant population has declined by 70 percent since the 1980s, primarily due to poaching for the illegal ivory trade. Although poaching of African elephants has tailed off in recent years, after peaking in 2011, the demand for ivory continues to take the lives of elephants. Even today, up to 20,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory or meat.
“Poachers usually use Kalashnikov or poisoned arrows. These weapons hurt the animal but do not kill him immediately,” explained Pauwel De Wachter, WWF Coordinator for West Africa.
“Once the elephant is on the ground, the poachers cut his tendons to immobilize him, condemning him to a painful death. So that the elephant empties more quickly of his blood, they cut his trunk.”
As with any species, the loss of African elephants could have a profound knock-on effect on the wider ecosystem. For example, the elephant is essentially a giant mobile fertilizing machine that can distribute nutrients across a huge range. Even their footprints play a role in sculpting the landscape and provide a home for numerous species, from dragonflies to tadpoles.
Africa actually hosts two different species of elephant, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) that lives in West Africa and the Congo Basin, and the African savanna (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana) that can be found in a range of habitats across dozens of African countries.
When it comes to poaching though, both face very similar struggles.
WWF Belgium is spearheading the new campaign as Belgium is surprisingly central to the plight of the African elephant. It’s central geographical location and colonial history with Africa means it has become an important node in the illegal ivory trade over the past century.
Globally, huge progress has been made towards weakening the ivory trade. Many countries have introduced tough new bans on ivory in recent years, while more money is being spent on support projects that directly combat poaching and protect areas where elephants live. Even China, the world’s largest consumer of ivory, has brought in new restrictions.
However, the fight is far from won. The IUCN Red List notes the total population of African elephants is actually on the increase thanks to this progress, but both species are still listed as vulnerable to extinction, primarily due to poaching and increasing habitat conflicts with humans.