8 of the Most Endangered Elephants in the World
Elephants are the largest land animals in the world and our fascination with these gentle giants has lasted for centuries. Unfortunately, these species may not be around for centuries more.
Why elephants are endangered
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Humans are to blame for the endangered status of elephants; the two main causes are hunting and habitat loss. Many African herds were hunted for their ivory tusks and their numbers have been decimated as a result. Though ivory trade is now illegal, poachers still kill for it. National Geographic reports that Asian elephants are still being killed for their skin to make jewelry and supposed medicinal cures. Elephants are wounded, sometimes fatally, by snares set for antelopes and other animals for food.
However, as bad as hunting elephants is, habitat loss is the main cause of their declining populations. Humans use traditional elephant territory for farms and housing, forcing elephants into smaller areas with less food and water. This is how many elephants are left in the world.
Two main types of elephants
All elephants are either Asian or African. One of the easiest ways to differentiate between them is by their tusks: African elephants, both female and male, have tusks, while only some male Asian elephants do. Fun fact: Similar to humans who are right- or left-handed, elephants favor their right or left tusk. The one they use most often is usually smaller.
Most African elephants have three toes on each hind foot. The exception is the African forest elephant; it and all Asian elephants have four toes. All elephants have five toes on their front feet.
African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis)
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the African elephant as vulnerable. There are approximately 415,000 African elephants left in the wild, compared to the turn of the 20th century when the population was estimated at 3.5 million. Thanks to conservation efforts, their population decline is slowly being reversed; with any luck, in the future, they may be able to join these animals that have come back from the brink of extinction.
Two separate African subspecies remain; until recently they were categorized just as the same, but as DNA studies improved, scientists have changed the way they classify elephants. The most common is the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), also called the savanna elephant. The unique desert elephant is one type of bush elephant. The other subspecies is the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
African bush/savanna elephant
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The bush/savanna elephant is found across most of Africa. The animals have slight differences depending on where they live. The most common is the Southern African bush elephant. It’s found from equatorial Africa all the way down to South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. The Masai elephant (also called the East African bush elephant) is found in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
Further north, the African plains elephant (West African bush elephant) makes its home in the west in Senegal, through Nigeria, all the way east to Ethiopia and Somalia. The North African bush elephant, commonly used for wars in Roman times, has been extinct for centuries.
Desert elephants of Namibia
Though genetically similar to bush/savanna elephants, desert elephants look and behave differently due to their desert-like habitat in northwestern Namibia. Their bodies are smaller and their legs are longer, and they can go for a greater period of time without drinking water. They live in smaller family groups and nibble from trees rather than uprooting them, which helps preserve their fragile environment. Many elephant experts have observed desert elephants’ environment protection behaviors, such as avoiding stepping on vegetation that could be damaged by their weight—just one of the amazing things that elephants do. The Namibia Tourism Board says that before the poaching spree of the 1980s, there were about 3,000 desert elephants. Now it’s now estimated that only 600 remain.
Desert elephants of Mali
Another group of desert elephants lives in the Sahel Desert in Mali, which qualifies them as the most northerly remaining wild elephants in Africa. They were forced from their savanna home to the desert because of human encroachment into their traditional territory. The New York Times reports that the remaining 300 animals now have armed guards to help protect them.
African forest elephants
A separate species from bush/savanna elephants, forest elephants are smaller, darker-skinned, and their tusks point downward instead of outward. Little is known about the elusive forest elephant that lives in Central and West African countries like Uganda and Rwanda. There’s no firm population count, but the African Wildlife Foundation estimates that in the last ten years their numbers have declined by 62 percent.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus)
Asian elephants are classified as endangered by the IUCN and their numbers are decreasing. The elephants’ territory once ranged from Syria to northern China to below the equator in Indonesia. National Geographic estimates that there are only 20,000 to 40,000 remaining in the wild. The largest population decrease was seen in the last 75 years, with 50 percent dying in that period.
One-third of the Asian elephant population lives in captivity, sometimes working in logging but most often working to entertain tourists. Despite claims of the opposite, only a small portion live in true elephant sanctuaries. The Elephant Conservation Center in Laos is an excellent example of an ethical elephant sanctuary; they’ve even reintroduced elephants back to the wild.
The smallest Asian elephants are Borneo elephants. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls them baby-faced, as their ears are proportionally bigger than those of other elephants. These cuties also tend to have bigger bellies and tails that are so long that they drag on the ground. Some biologists believe they’re a separate genetic species, but others do not. Only about 1,500 remain and they’re one of the 14 animals that could disappear in your lifetime.
Forest-dwelling Sumatran elephants, which live in both Borneo and Sumatra, have the lightest skin color of the Asian elephants. They also have an extra pair of ribs—most elephants have 19 pairs but Sumatran elephants have 20. Between 2,400 and 2,800 Sumatran elephants remain.