The number of African forest elephants has fallen by more than 86 percent over a 31-year period, and the population of savanna elephants dropped by more than 60 percent over a 50-year period, according to the IUCN, which rates the global extinction risks to the world’s animals.
Africa has an estimated 415,000 elephants, counting both species, according to the IUCN.
The savanna elephants prefer open plains and are found in habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, with Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe having high numbers. The African forest elephants — smaller in size — mostly occupy the tropical forests of West and Central Africa, with the largest remaining populations found in Gabon and Congo Republic.
In Gabon, the fight against elephant poaching “is more than just fighting for nature. It’s fighting for the stability of our country,” said Lee White, Gabon’s minister of water and forests.
“We have seen countries like Central African Republic, where poachers became bandits, became rebels and destabilized the whole country,” White said, blaming the bulk of poaching and ivory trafficking on international groups.
“Eighty to 90 percent of our ivory goes to Nigeria and ends up funding Boko Haram [rebels]. So it’s very much a cross-border fight against organized crime and even against terrorism,” he said.
The battle to protect Gabon’s forest elephants is a war, he said. “We have transformed biologists into warriors,” White said. “We have transformed people who signed up to watch elephants and work with nature and the national parks into soldiers who have gone to war for the survival of the elephants.”
Criminal networks working with corrupt officials are a significant problem in central and western Africa, said Rudi van Aarde of the University of Pretoria zoology department.
“Most of the ivory that leaves this continent for Asia is from central and western Africa. The population is suffering more because of the illegal trade in ivory instead of environmental issues like deforestation,” van Aarde said.
Elephant poaching south of the Sahara rose sharply from 2008 to 2012. A worrying trend is that a substantial amount of that poaching occurred in East and Southern Africa, where an estimated 100,000 savanna elephants were killed in northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania, during that time, he said.
Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN, said the organization’s new classification shows the dramatic decline of the animals and the urgency work needed.
“Africa’s elephants play key roles in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all over the world,” Oberle said. “We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savanna elephants is conserved.”