African elephants (Loxodonta africana), the largest land animals still in existence, are in trouble.
In late September, the African Elephant Status Report 2016 was released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains the comprehensive IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Included in its more than 300 pages was the disheartening news that for the first time in 25 years, the African Elephant population has declined across the continent of Africa.
Scientists estimate that over the past century the population of African elephants has dwindled by 95%. The current population is estimated to sit at 415,000, although researchers say it is possible that the number could be up to a third higher, because of the difficulty of conducting surveys in certain areas. The subspecies of elephant that dwells in the forest is particularly vulnerable thanks to habitat reduction and poaching combined with a low birth rate (these elephants tend not to reproduce for the first 20 years of their life and then only give birth once every five or six years, at a rate three times slower than their savannah-dwelling relatives). Their numbers have dropped by 60% since 2002; by comparison, the subspecies that resides on the savannah has lost a third of their population in the past seven years.
Loss of habitat is certainly a concern for elephants, but it is not nearly so large or imminent a threat as poaching. Poaching is the deliberate and illegal custom of killing elephants for their tusks, which are made of ivory, a prized substance for making jewelery, statues, and, until the second half of the 20th century, piano keys, dominoes, and billiard balls, all of which are now made from synthetic materials. (It is still legal to hunt elephants in several nations, but not solely for their tusks.) In the past decade, the illegal ivory trade has blossomed and burgeoned, reaching levels not seen since the 1970s. The international sale of ivory is banned worldwide, but there is a thriving black market in China, Japan, and some other Asian nations, where the domestic sale of ivory is still legal, and to American tourists, who smuggle the ivory into the United States.
The African Elephant can be found in 37 countries across West, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. While its populations vary from nation to nation, trends can be seen across regions. Southern Africa is home to more than 70% of the current population of African elephants. It has largely avoided poaching problems until recently, but experts suggest it's becoming a growing problem. Eastern Africa has suffered the worst poaching, with roughly half of its population killed in the past decade, with herds in Tanzania being particularly hard hit. Central Africa and West Africa have also had significant losses due to illegal hunting. (There are a few bright spots, however; herds in Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda are stable or growing.)
Even if poaching were to halt completely, it would take more than a century to make up for the population losses that have come in the past decade.
Based on the previous two status reports, the African Elephant's conservation status currently is listed as Vulnerable, which means it faces a high risk of endangerment in the wild. With the release of this new report, a downgrade in status to Endangered may be forthcoming for the African Elephant.
In this Science in the Classroom piece, students can examine an annotated version of a research paper that discusses using genetic tools to identify the origins of elephant ivory seized during transit between 1996 and 2014 and identifying the most common poaching locations. (This piece was written with college students in mind.)
Some African nations, either with a stockpile of confiscated or legal (from elephants who die of natural causes) ivory or with a stable elephant population that could be farmed and culled in a managed scenario, would like to resume sanctioned ivory sales as a means of protecting elephants from hunters. Learn why this solution is misguided at best, in this article from Science Magazine.
While this Science Update focuses on the sale of antiquities through online auction sites, parallels to the illegal sale of ivory on the web are easily made.
The Rise and Fall of the Mammoths lesson (6-8) will help students to examine the evidence for evolution using the elephant's extinct relative, the woolly mammoth. The Passenger Pigeons: Nomads Lost lesson (6-8) covers the concept and implications of extinction using the example of the Passenger Pigeon, once an extremely abundant species that was completely eliminated by humans.
A two-part series (6-8) focuses on endangered species. Why Are Species Endangered? introduces and explores the various issues and problems faced by endangered species globally, while Working to Save Endangered Species focuses less on the science and more on the actual work of saving endangered species.
The Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations lesson (9-12) provides an introduction to conservation biology via the memoirs of a scientist who has traveled throughout the world to study and defend endangered species.
Science Update has a number of podcasts relating to elephants: Listen to Pachyderms get the Point to hear how elephants, unlike mammals much more similar to us, seem to instinctively understand pointing gestures. In Elephant Ears, find out how elephants can discriminate between human voices that pose a threat to their safety and those that do not. In Elephant Roundup, discover how, back in 2007, a herd of endangered elephants went into hiding—and later was found. Finally, in Elephant Signals, learn how elephant vocalizations travel through the ground, and can be sensed by other elephants as much as 10 miles away.
Photo Credits: Clipart.com.