Causes of Endangerment
Habitat Loss :
Elephants need a large amount of habitat because they eat so
much. Humans have become their direct competitors for living space. Human populations in Africa and Asia have quadrupled since the turn of the century, the fastest growth rate on the planet. Forest and savanna habitat has been converted to cropland, pastureland for livestock, and timber for housing and fuel.
Humans do not regard elephants as good neighbors. When humans and elephants live close together, elephants raid crops, and rogue elephants (aggressive male elephants during the breeding season) rampage through villages. Local people shoot elephants because they fear them and regard them as pests. Some countries have established culling programs: park officials or hunters kill a predetermined number of elephants to keep herds manageable and minimize human-elephant conflicts.
Hunting has been a major cause of the decline in elephant populations. Elephants became prized trophies for big-game hunters after Europeans arrived in Africa. More recently, and more devastatingly, hunters have slaughtered elephants for their ivory tusks. The ivory trade became a serious threat to elephants in the 1970s. A sudden oil shortage caused the world economy to collapse, and ivory became more valuable than gold. In fact, ivory has been called "white gold" because it is beautiful, easily carved, durable, and pleasing to the touch. Most of the world's ivory is carved in Japan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries, where skilled carvers depend on a supply of ivory for their livelihoods.
Hunting elephants is no longer legal in many African countries, but poaching was widespread until very recently. For many the high price of ivory, about $100 a pound in the 1980s, was too tempting to resist. Local people often had few other ways to make a living, and subsistence farmers or herders could make more by selling the tusks of one elephant than they could make in a dozen years of farming or herding.
As the price of ivory soared, poachers became more organized, using automatic weapons, motorized vehicles, and airplanes to chase and kill thousands of elephants. To governments and revolutionaries mired in civil wars and strapped for cash, poaching ivory became a way to pay for more firearms and supplies.
Poaching has caused the collapse of elephants' social structure as well as decimating their numbers. Poachers target the biggest elephants because their tusks are larger. They often kill all the adults in the group, leaving young elephants without any adults to teach them migration routes, dry-season water sources, and other learned behavior. Many of Africa's remaining elephant groups are leaderless subadults and juveniles.
Protected Areas :
There are many national parks or reserves in Africa where elephant habitat is protected. Many people believe, however, that the parks are not large enough and are too isolated from each other to allow elephant populations to recover. (See Island Biogeography.) Some countries are developing refuges linked by corridors to allow seasonal migration and genetic exchange. Human use of the same land to grow crops, however, makes it difficult to create linkages between reserves without increasing conflicts between humans and elephants.
Sometimes reserves are too successful. When there are too many elephants in a reserve for the available vegetation, they destroy the habitat. They also forage outside the park and destroy crops.
One factor that has convinced African governments to take strong measures to protect elephants is the rising importance of the tourist trade to their economies. Kenya alone receives $50 million a year from tourists coming to see elephants. The national parks bring in much-needed income, and tourism is a source of income that can continue into the future because it does not deplete wildlife populations.
Trade Prohibition :
Worldwide concern over the decline of the elephant led to a complete ban on the ivory trade in 1990. Elephants have been placed on Appendix I of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means all trade in elephant parts is prohibited. Some governments have cracked down hard on poachers. In some countries, park rangers are told to shoot poachers on sight.
Not all governments support the ivory ban. In Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana, for example, people farm elephants on ranches for trophy hunters. Government officials argue that trade in ivory should be regulated, not prohibited. They say countries that are managing their elephants well should be allowed to sell ivory in order to pay for conservation measures, such as park guards and equipment. Others argue that the only effective solution is a total ban, because there is no way to distinguish ivory of elephants that were legally killed from that of elephants that were poached. The debate over the effectiveness, fairness, and wisdom of the ivory ban continues.
Asian ivory craftspeople are turning to other sources of raw material for their carvings. Some are turning to walrus tusks instead of elephant ivory, shifting hunting pressure to walruses.
Captive breeding of African elephants provides elephants for zoos so zoos do not have to take more elephants from the wild for display. The Jacksonville Zoological Park [Z&A] has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the African elephant.