Elephants are the world’s largest living land animals, weighing in at up to 7.5 tonnes.1
Their size has made them a prime target for poaching. History has shown us that it is usually the largest mammals that are most at risk from human hunting. Elephants are no different. We hunt them for their meat, their trunks, and their lucrative tusks.
There are around 450,000 elephants in the world. But this is a tiny fraction of how many there used to be.
In this article we look at the state of elephant populations, and how these populations have changed over time.
There are two species of elephant: the African (with the official name Loxodonta africana) and the Asian (Elephas maximus) elephant.
If you want to tell the difference between them, look at their ears: the African elephant has much bigger ears, very similar in shape to the African continent; the Asian elephant has much smaller, rounded ears.2 Their tusks are also a useful indicator: both male and female African elephants can grow tusks, but only male Asian ones can.
In the table, I have summarized the status of their populations.
There are around ten times as many African than Asian elephants in the world. In 2015, there were around 415,000 African elephants left. For the Asian species, this is in the range of 40,000 to 50,000.
The Asian elephant is classified as ‘endangered’, one level down from ‘critically endangered’ before extinction, on the IUCN Red List.3 The African elephant was previously treated as a single species, but has recently been separated into the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) for evaluation. The forest elephant is listed as ‘critically endangered’ and the savanna elephant as ‘endangered’. The populations of both species are declining.
|Extinction risk||Population trend|
|415,000||By subspecies below||By subspecies below|
|African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)||Critically endangered||Decreasing|
|African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana)||Endangered||Decreasing|
|40,000 – 50,000||Endangered||Decreasing|
Are elephant populations increasing or decreasing?
To understand the vulnerability of elephant populations, knowing the the number of animals alive today is not enough. We also need to know the direction and rate of change. If population numbers are falling quickly, we should be concerned even if there are hundreds of thousands left.
Let’s take a look at the African and Asian elephant species one by one.
There are ten times as many African elephants as Asian elephants in the world. That makes them seem abundant. But their numbers are a tiny fraction of what they were in the past.
African elephant populations have shrunk by 98% since 1500. We see this in the chart.4
In 1500, there were over 25 million elephants in Africa. By 1900 this had fallen to around 10 million, and by 1979 down to 1.3 million.
There was a rapid decline in population size over the 1970s and 1980s such that by the mid-1990s numbers had fallen below 300,000. Over the following decades, conservation efforts across some countries managed to restore populations to over 470,000 in 2008. But increased poaching rates over the past decade have sent numbers back into decline.
Another piece of evidence we have that populations have been in decline comes from a metric called the ‘carcass ratio’.
During population surveys, researchers don’t only count the number of alive elephants, they also count the number of dead elephants (carcasses). The carcass ratio is the number of dead elephants observed during surveys, given as a percentage of the total population.
The carcass ratio across Africa as a whole was 11.9%.5 This means that for every 100 live elephants, there were around 12 dead elephants. A carcass ratio greater than 8% usually means the population is shrinking, because this will be greater than the replacement rate.6The overall population of African elephants has been falling in recent years. But this varies significantly across countries. In some, the carcass ratio was very high: in Cameroon, it was 83%, it was 32% in Mozambique, and 30% in Angola.7
Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)
There are fewer estimates of Asian Elephant populations. This is more worrying because the Asian elephant is at a higher risk of extinction. We should be tracking these numbers more, not less, closely.
We do have some data for select countries, and some longer-term estimates.
The IUCN estimates that the total population of Asian elephants has more than halved over the past century. It estimates that there were 100,000 animals in the early 1900s; today that figure is in the range of 40,000 to 50,000.
Population data over time is available for some countries in Asia: the Indian government, for example, has published estimates periodically since 1970.
In the map, you can explore the latest population estimates from the Asian IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) for each country.
In India, populations have been steadily increasing since 1980, rising from around 16,000 to over 27,000 in 2017. This shows that it’s possible to protect these species and help their populations rebuild.
However, the lack of data over time for many countries makes it difficult to properly assess the health of Asian elephant populations.
How to save our elephant populations
By far the biggest threat to both African and Asian elephants is poaching. Elephants are killed for their trunks and their tusks. Ivory is a lucrative business.
It’s not just elephants that are under pressure.
Poaching is the leading threat to all large mammals. But as we’ve seen from some country-level examples: protecting these species is possible: India has managed to protect and restore elephant populations. Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Angola have also managed to turn the trend.