African Elephant Downlisted to Vulnerable
The IUCN has downlisted the continental population of African elephant
from "endangered" to "vulnerable". That is the lowest threatened
category on the IUCN Red List. Elephant remain in one of the three
threatened Red List categories (critically endangered, endangered and
vulnerable) for the technical reason that some of the "major causes for
its decline in the past, such as habitat loss due to human population
expansion, have not ceased and may not be reversible." This is an
overall continent-wide assessment, not a regional assessment of its
status. The "vulnerable" assessment became final at the 3rd IUCN World
Conservation Congress in Bangkok in November 2004 attended by both yours
truly and Shane Mahoney on behalf of Conservation Force.
The reassessment of the status transpired over the past two years. It
was begun in 2002 by the African Elephant Specialist Group (AESG) of the
Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the IUCN (The World Conservation
Union). The African Elephant Specialist Group is one of more than 120
Specialist Groups of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. That
Specialist Group is comprised of over 45 select scientists and wildlife
conservation practitioners from all over sub-Saharan Africa. It is by
far the most knowledgeable and expert authority on the overall status of
the African elephant.
The total estimated African elephant population is 660,000, according to
the Specialist Group. The overall population numbers are estimated to be
173,000 greater than in the 1998 Report, yet nearly 45 percent of the
estimated range of the elephant continues to have no population
estimate. In short, there are more elephants than indicated in the
It is explained in the assessment that "[i]t is not possible to state
whether the change in the listing is due to real changes in the status
of the species, to the availability of better information and/or to the
use of different methods of assessment." The new assessment considered
the up-to-date population figures but not the apparent trend of the
continental level published in late 2003, African Elephant Status Report
2002, An Update from the African Elephant Database. Although some local
trends have been reliably determined, that is not true of the continent
as a whole. That Report is the latest in a series of reports derived
from the African Elephant Database, which is the largest and most
detailed source of information on the global distribution and abundance
of any species whatsoever. "Overall, the population figures…are higher
than those reported four years ago," according to that Report prepared
by the African Elephant Specialist Group. "This is partly due to
reported increases in major savanna elephant populations in countries
such as Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, which together harbor the
largest known populations in the continent."
The African Elephant Specialist Group advises that this apparent
increase in elephant numbers was not itself the basis of the "vulnerable
assessment" because no continental trend can be established. Even though
the African Elephant Database is the largest and most detailed source of
its kind in the world, it is not sufficient by itself. The Specialist
Group points out that "most elephant surveys are restricted to protected
areas, and it is precisely to protected areas that elephant flock when
their range is compressed by expanding human populations. And a high
concentration of elephants in protected areas can give a misleading
impression of increasing numbers." In an IUCN press release, the Group
"Many other factors can lead to false impressions. ‘We now have
estimates covering a much larger area than we did five years ago – and
that alone can go a long way in explaining differences in numbers – but
there are still huge gaps in our knowledge,’ says Blanc. The estimates
presented in the AESR only cover just over half of the total area in
which elephants may still occur, and repeated assessments of the status
of elephant populations in these unsurveyed areas need to be made before
an accurate picture of changes in elephant numbers over time can
The fact that African elephants are still listed in one of the three Red
List threatened risk categories is because of both the population
decline in the past, though "there are no credible estimates for a
continental population prior to the late 1970’s", and because of the
increasing human populations leading to high levels of human-elephant
conflict and increasing fragmentation of elephant range. "Habitat loss
and competition for resources between people and elephants remain
amongst the foremost challenges in elephant conservation today,"
according to the Specialist Group. This important human-elephant
conflict occurs primarily beyond the borders of protected areas where
most elephant surveys are conducted and where safari hunting can play a
more direct role in elephant conservation.
The new Red Listing reclassification does not rest upon any present
threat from legal or illegal trade. It is not because of licensed,
regulated hunting, nor poaching, bush meat trade or subsistence harvest.
It is the result of illegal trade over a decade ago combined with the
continuing and irreversible expansion of civilization. How well the
African elephant fares in the future largely depends upon how well we
address the human-elephant conflict that animal rightists and
protectionists do not want to even acknowledge. That is where programs
like CAMPFIRE, CHOBE ENCLAVE Conservation Trust, and the Cullman & Hurt
Community Wildlife Project play their vital roles.
Botswana has 143,000 elephants, which is the largest known population in
Africa. Elephant numbers are expanding there at a continued rate of
about six percent per annum. The elephant range in northern Botswana is
expanding westward into areas of the Okavango where elephants had not
been seen for many years according to the Specialist Group.
Tanzania is second with an elephant estimate of 130,500. Its highest
population is in the Selous Game Reserve, 40,000 (± 11,500) and outside,
immediately surrounding the Selous, 18,000 (± 9,000). The Specialist
Group states that Tanzania has "one of the most extensive wildlife
monitoring programmes on the continent … (and) one of the highest
proportions of protected area coverage in the world. Twelve national
parks, 34 game reserves, and 38 game control areas grant varying degrees
of effective protection to 28 percent of the country’s land area."
Zimbabwe is third with 96,000 elephants. Its elephant population also
continues to increase. The largest sub-population is in Hwange National
Park, 44,510 (± 5,800). Zimbabwe’s second largest population is the
Zambezi Valley, 19,000 (± 2,500).
The new "vulnerable" assessment can be viewed at http://www.redlist.
org/search/details.php?species= 12392. The most recent African Elephant
Status Report 2002 containing distribution maps and population data
separately in each area of each country can be viewed at http://www.iucn.
org/afesq/aed/index.html. Those booking elephant hunts may wish to view
the area they are to hunt. It is free of charge. Hard copies can be
purchased through http://iucn.org/bookstore. Ask for Occasional Paper
No. 29, African Elephant Status Report 2002.