Elephants are the largest land mammals to roam the planet and some of the most socially intelligent creatures scientists have studied.
They’re doting parents, they demonstrate empathy towards their elephant friends, they can imitate human speech — and one baby elephant recently took the news by storm for peeling a banana herself.
Yet, there are not many of these stunning animals left on Earth.
In the 1930s, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the African continent was home to more than 10 million wild elephants. Those numbers have been plummeting though, and as of 2016, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Status Report, there were just 415,000 African elephants left across 37 countries in Africa.
African forest elephant in the Lekoli River at Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of the Congo (Credit: Roger de la Harpe/Shutterstock)
The good news is that some populations of African elephants in southern Africa are secure and even expanding. For instance, the Zimbabwean government says that — thanks to successful conservation efforts and the Kavango-Zambezi transfrontier, a protected area twice the size of the U.K. — between 2014 and 2021, elephant populations have increased by 16,000 individuals.
“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,” said Bruno Oberle, IUCN director general, in a 2021 statement.
But the African elephant is not just one animal, as there are actually two different species: the bigger, long-tusked bush or savannah elephants, and then the smaller, darker forest elephants. They were initially thought to be two subspecies of a general “African elephant” species, but research in 2010 actually pin-pointed that they split on the evolutionary tree maybe as far as five million years ago.
While African savannah elephants are listed as “endangered” by the IUCN, the African forest elephants, which are found for more than 50 percent of the Congo basin, make up just one-quarter of all African elephants and are really hard to count and keep track of, making them “critically endangered.”
Asian elephant at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai Thailand (Credit: Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock)
The situation for Asian elephants is even more dire. There are just 50,000 Asian elephants left, according to Prajna Paramita Panda, program manager at the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, making it just one-tenth of the African elephant population.
In fact, more than 95 percent of the past global population of Asian elephants — which used to span from Iraq and Syria up to East China — has disappeared, and only 13 countries in Asia are currently home to elephants. The animal’s population also varies greatly between different nations, according to Panda’s team.
In Vietnam, there are only 100 to 120 elephants, while India houses 30,000 elephants, Panda says. This is more than 60 percent of the global Asian elephant population, followed by about 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka. Nepal is home to 220 elephants, Bangladesh has about 250 to 300, and Cambodia and Laos each have about 600.
“We really are concerned that the Asian elephant should thrive, and it should not be going to the brink of extinction,” says Panda. The IUCN status of Asian elephants is “endangered” since 1986.
(Credit: Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock)
For the safety of African elephants, wildlife crime, mainly poaching for the illegal ivory trade, is the number one threat.
Since the 1980s, poachers have been killing more than 100,000 African elephants for ivory every single year, according to estimates, hitting the African forest elephants the worst.
The past decade saw a surge in poaching for ivory, according to the IUCN, the worst that the African continent has experienced since the ‘70s, affecting the Eastern Africa region the most.
In Asia though, according to Panda, poaching is actually not the most prominent, and worrying threat to elephants. It’s habitat loss and fragmentation, due to changes in land use and encroachment on their forest habitats. In the past, elephants in Asia roamed over 9 million square kilometers, whilst the status of the distribution area of the elephant population has now been reduced to 2.48 million square kilometers.
“There are settlements, there are plantations, industries, farming, mining, and also the railways, the roads, they are all crisscrossing across the forest areas because all everybody is aspiring for is development,” says Panda. Most importantly, this encroachment means humans and elephants need to live closer and closer, causing conflict.
“Elephants think ‘Oh, this was our forest where has it vanished,’ and human beings think ‘Oh, this is our land, why are elephants coming and damaging our crops and destroying our houses, and why are they killing us?” says Panda. “They want to completely be exclusive of each other. But the current trend is that we have to try to shift the attitude from human-elephant conflict towards human-elephant coexistence.”
Human encroachment of elephants comes with a lot of lethal accidents. In Asia, due to human-elephant conflict, 600 human beings die every year, and around 450 elephants are killed in retaliation.
In India alone, every year, 500 human beings get killed due to human-elephant conflict, and 100 elephants are killed in retaliation, according to Panda. In Sri Lanka, although a smaller country, elephants kill around 100 human beings every year, as do more than 250 elephants from humans.
Trains hit and kill some of these elephants — in India alone, between 1987 and 2021, trains killed about 350 elephants, according to Panda — while others die by deliberate and accidental electrocution or poisoning.
For instance, sometimes communities living on the fringe of the forest hook up their horses to central sources of electricity, and elephants get accidentally tangled in them on their passage. Other times, farmers set out poisons to keep animals away and elephants fall prey to their trap.
Elephants in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda (Credit: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock).
Like all big conservation issues like these, there’s no clear-cut answer as to what we can do to help these creatures thrive, according to Panda. The approach has to be multipronged, and mainly focus on how there just isn’t enough space in the world.
“The question is not how many elephants are present, but how many elephants will we actually be able to contain?” says Panda, noting that as Asia’s human population is set to double, the elephant habitat is set to half. “So, in that case of scenario, how many Asian elephants can actually thrive in a poor area where there is immense anthropogenic pressure on a species?”
The first type of action needed is governmental, according to Panda, and that could be through the installment of National Elephant Action Plans. These plans elucidate the facts about the local species, its threats, and measures of conservation.
Governments should also put compensation schemes in place to mitigate the anger of farmers who have had their homes and crops destroyed, and help them recover from the economic hit, according to Panda.
Plans on how to manage elephant reserves — in unison, internationally — should also be included in these legislations, as well as plans for corridor management.
“Elephants are large migratory species, whatever you do, you cannot actually contain them in a particular habitat,” says Panda. “Creating elephant reserves also means identifying elephant corridors that are protected and secured.” Sometimes elephants need to cross international boundaries, so different countries should be working together to plan corridors.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, a popular travel destination attraction in Lampang, Thailand. (credit: Supermop/Shutterstock)
There are also several layers of human-elephant conflict mitigation measures. Some are innovative, cost-effective, and nature-friendly techniques that people are implementing as elephant deterrents already. The organization Save The Elephants has come up with the Human-Elephant Coexistence Toolbox to share tips and tricks for farmers on how to best do this.
To keep elephants out of one’s land, some might use red chili peppers — which elephants hate the smell of — to make fences or small dung bombs. Making fences with hanging metal strips that clink and clank in the wind, also known as Kasaine fences, makes for a good noise deterrent.
Installing a system of beehives surrounding one’s land also works are a great scare for the pachyderms, as the stinging insects make the mammals buzz off, and also make honey for the farmers to sell. Save The Elephants is also helping deploy BuzzBoxes, devices that make the buzzing sound of bees to scare off elephants without actually having to use live insects.
The Frontier Elephant Program is trying to get to the bottom of the elephant-human conflict. They’re studying the elephants’ risk-taking and decision-making behavior, understanding what goes on in their brain, and finding out to what extent they are aware of their conflict with humans.
“Unless development and conservation go hand in hand, and there is a balance, it’s very difficult for elephants, or for that matter, any other wildlife to thrive,” says Panda.
Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet