Elephant conservation and the global trade in ivory
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Asian Elephant populations
The Asian Elephant Elphas maximus occupies a range just under 500,000 square km across thirteen countries in South and South-East Asia; this is however only one tenth of their former range, which once spanned 9 million square km from Iran all the way across to China.
India possesses the largest population of Asian Elephants, with approximately 26,000-30,000 animals, followed by Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. There are approximately 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants, however this is thought to be a fairly crude population estimate, but the overall trend of population change is a negative one.
The Asian Elephant is classified by the IUCN as Endangered, with certain subspecies rated as Critically Endangered; for example, the Sumatran elephant which has lost 69% of its habitat in just a single generation.
African Elephant populations
© Martin Harvey / WWF
The African Elephant Loxodonta africana occurs in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa numbering an estimated 415,000 animals across the continent. This distribution is not uniform however, with Southern Africa possessing the majority of the population.
The African Elephant is classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable, although populations in Southern Africa are relatively secure, while those in Central Africa are considered Endangered.
Threats to elephants
Habitat destruction, fragmentation and degradation is a severe threat to elephant populations. Rapid human population growth, particularly in Asia, is also leading to competition for space and as a consequence conflict between humans and elephants is on the increase, often resulting in "revenge killings".
Poaching for ivory is also a major threat, particlarly to African Elephants, with somewhere in the region of 30,000 animals illegally killed per year in Africa in the early 2010s. In Tanzania numbers plummeted from an estimated 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 in 2014 because of poaching for ivory. The ivory is largely smuggled to Asia where it is carved into ornamental objects that are in high demand.
Only male Asian Elephants have tusks, so in areas where poaching for ivory is high, it can lead to highly skewed sex ratios among the surviving population. Elephants are also poached for leather or for their meat.
Another threat peculiar to Asian Elephants is that of trafficking of live animals: elephants are in demand, particularly in the forestry industry and work within the toruism industry. To meet the demand, particularly for young animals for the latter, elephants are seized from the wildin Myanmar and smuggled across the border into Thailand. TRAFFIC first drew attention to this illegal trade in live Asian Elephants in 2008, and followed this up with an in-depth study. The Thai authorities have taken action, with seizures of unregistered and illegally registered elephants from elephant camps and regulations introduced for the compulsory registration of domesticated elephants.