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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.

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Baby African elephant under the protection of the adults in the herd
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Why elephants are endangered

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.

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wild elephants, mother and son

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.

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Wild african elephant close up, Botswana, Africa
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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).

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Young African elephants racing toward the water, stirring up dust in the late afternoon sun. Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
John Michael Vosloo/Shutterstock

African bush/savanna elephant

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.

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Desert elephant walking in the dried up Hoanib river in Namibia. Desert elephants are african bush elephants that have made their homes in the Namib deserts. Are solitary and roam over large areas
Francesco Dazzi/Shutterstock

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.

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Desert at the base of the cliff, Mali, Africa.
Michele Alfieri/Shutterstock

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.

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Group of forest elephants in the forest edge. Republic of Congo. Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve. Central African Republic. An excellent illustration.
GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock

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.

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Wild Asian elephant mother and calf, Corbett National Park, India.
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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.

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Borneo elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) in Sabah, Borneo

Borneo elephants

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 few animals that could disappear in your lifetime. Here’s the real reason why elephants have such big ears.

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Sumatran elephant lying in sea with its trunk raised, Bintan, Indonesia.

Sumatran elephants

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.

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Two Sri Lankan wild elephant partners affectionately playing in a grass field under an orange sky sunset
Gregory Zamell/Shutterstock

Sri Lankan elephants

Sri Lankan elephants are the largest of the Asian elephants. They have darker skin, though they often have spots without pigmentation. These elephants only very rarely have tusks. There are between 2,500 and 4,000 left. The WWF reports that since the 1800s, their population has been reduced by 65 percent. Sri Lanka now has strict laws to protect their elephants, up to and including the death penalty for killing one. You’ve probably heard that elephants have incredible memories, but find out just how smart they really are!

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Family of Indian elephants
Oleksii G/Shutterstock

Indian elephants

Though also endangered, Indian elephants have a higher remaining population than those of the other Asian elephants combined. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 animals remain. Despite their name, Indian elephants aren’t only in India. Animals.net says they’re found throughout Southeast Asia in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, as well as in China, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

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Elephants touching each other gently (greeting) - Addo Elephant National Park
Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock

How you can help elephants

Help with the expensive upkeep of elephants by donating to and visiting ethical elephant sanctuaries. Sanctuaries that let elephants live as natural a life as possible are best. That means they aren’t giving rides to humans; being bathed by tourists; or performing, including painting. Be very wary of any organization which allows young elephants near humans. A process call phajaan is used to “crush the spirit” of young elephants so that they’ll be submissive to humans.

Trafalgar is a vacation company which helps protect the places it brings travelers through its TreadRight Foundation. CEO Gavin Tollman encourages travelers to visit countries where wild elephants live. “Tourism benefits the economy, provides needed jobs, and deters poachers and abuse,” he says, as well as giving you an incredible experience seeing elephants in the wild.

Helping humans helps save elephants: improving democracy; reducing poverty; and ensuring a secure food supply, housing, jobs, health care, and education mean fewer threats to the elephants that live near humans.

You can also donate money to or shop at an organization such as the WWF, one of the world’s leading conservation organizations. You can also help out the Earth by reducing the number of products you consume. All these things can help prevent elephants from going the way of these animals that have gone extinct in the last 100 years.

Johanna Read
Johanna covers travel and responsible tourism for Reader's Digest, National Geographic, Time, Travel + Leisure, Forbes, Fodor’s, and Lonely Planet. She’s keen on making life as stress-free as possible—for both travelers and residents of the places we visit—and encourages travel that’s culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also works as a management consultant helping to create healthy workplaces.