In some parts of Southern and East Africa, elephant populations are stable or increasing. In others, particularly parts of Central and West Africa, elephant numbers are still declining rapidly. Although the drivers and threats facing elephants are complex, often interacting, and may differ according to region, poaching remains a significant threat and thousands of elephants are killed each year to fuel the global demand for ivory.
African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to around 415,000 individuals as of 2016. According to African elephant specialists, more than 100,000 African elephants were killed during 20010-2012 alone, with poaching for ivory as the main driver of this decline. Elephant populations simply can’t keep up. Elephants take more than a decade to reach reproductive age and females only produce a calf every 4 to 5 years, meaning elephant populations are slow to grow and more individuals may be killed each year than are born.
As a result of global conservation efforts, poaching rates have been slightly, yet steadily, declining over the past few years across Africa. The annual poaching mortality rate has dropped from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to approximately 5% today, but we are still losing elephants faster than they can reproduce.
Poaching for ivory can exacerbate other threats impacting elephants, including climate change and drought, and competition for space, with habitat loss and fragmentation leading to higher levels of human-elephant conflict, which can lead to the retaliative killing of elephants.
While much of the illegal ivory trade comes from African elephants, Asian elephants have also declined both in numbers and geographic range. Today, Asian elephants can only be found in 13 countries, and often in smaller, isolated populations. Poaching of Asian elephants for ivory remains a threat in some countries. Since only males sport tusks in Asian elephants, there are many wild Asian elephant populations without tusked males. Most tusked Asian elephant males have been poached for their ivory, and many tusked Asian elephant males are in private collections.