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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 660,000 estimate.


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 states:


"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 emerge."


 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 Ask for Occasional Paper No. 29, African Elephant Status Report 2002.

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