African Elephants Face Extinction Due to Poaching, Shrinking Habitats

Elephants in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

African elephant populations have decreased dramatically over the past decades, due to the illegal ivory trade and habitat loss, an NGO has said. Conservationists say only 415,000 elephants remain on the continent.

African elephants are facing the imminent threat of extinction due to poaching for ivory and habitat loss, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a report published on Thursday. The number of African forest elephants has dropped by 86% over a 31-year period, the assessment said, with the population of African savanna elephants decreasing by 60% over a 50-year period.

"We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savannah elephants is conserved," IUCN Director General Bruno Oberle said.

There are currently 415,000 elephants across the African continent, according to the IUCN. The African forest elephant is classified as "critically endangered," the highest threat level before extinction, while the larger savanna elephant is "endangered."

Where do the elephants live and why are their populations decreasing?

The African forest elephants inhabit tropical rainforests in west and central Africa, in countries such as Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The savanna elephants prefer the wide, open plains of sub-Saharan Africa, with populations found in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The top risk for both species is ivory poaching, which has soared over the past decade. In 2008, a huge legal sale of ivory from four African nations to Japan and China intended to reduce poaching backfired, causing more elephants to be killed from the practice.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international ivory trade. Yet, the ivory trade continues often because of criminal networks working with corrupt officials, with much of the ivory leaving Africa for Asia.

Another major threat for the elephants is habitat loss, as land across Africa is increasingly being developed for agriculture and other purposes.

"If we don't plan our land-use properly, moving forward, then as much as we stop poaching and we stop the illegal killing of these animals, there will still be other forms of indirect killings due as a result of poor land-use planning," Benson Okita-Ouma of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group said.

What can African governments do to save the elephants?

The IUCN report also highlighted the steps some African nations have taken to preserve their elephant populations. In Gabon and the Republic of Congo, forest elephant populations are stable in some well-managed conservation areas, while savanna elephant populations are stable or growing in the Kavango-Zambezi Conservation Area, which lies within the borders of five African countries.

"Several African countries have led the way in recent years, proving that we can reverse elephant declines, and we must work together to ensure their example can be followed," Oberle said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, a non-profit based in New York City, believes five strategies should be implemented in order to protect elephant populations. These include preventing illegal elephant killings, protecting their habitats, monitoring elephant numbers, reducing ivory trafficking and reducing the demand for ivory itself.

(AP, Reuters)

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