By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Scientists and conservationists have long warned about drastic drops in African elephant populations because of habitat loss, conflicts with humans and poaching for ivory. Trophy hunters exacerbate the problem by mowing elephants down for fun. Yesterday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature sounded a dire warning that these beloved animals could now be just one or two steps away from disappearing forever.
In its Red List assessment of African elephants released yesterday, the IUCN, for the first time, classified elephants into two species based on new genetic evidence, as forest elephants and savannah elephants.
The forest elephant, listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered,” is found in the tropical forests of Central Africa and in a range of habitats in West Africa, while the savanna elephant, listed as “endangered,” prefers open country and is found in a variety of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa including grasslands and deserts.
The IUCN last assessed African elephants in 2008 as a single species and listed them as “vulnerable” at the time. The change in status came after an assessment team gathered data from 495 sites across Africa. The review found that the population of savanna elephants has fallen at least 60 percent and that of forest elephants by more than 86 percent since surveys first carried out by researchers in the 1960s and 1970s.
These are shocking numbers and they highlight the urgency with which we need to address the problems elephants face before it’s too late.
For the Humane Society family of organizations, protecting elephants is a priority and we are engaged in a number of efforts globally to fight threats to their survival. Humane Society International has been working to reduce conflicts and promote co-existence with elephants in South Africa.
The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund are fighting trophy hunting and wildlife trafficking here in the United States. Our nation is a thriving market for ivory products, as we have shown through our investigations, and it is also home to wealthy trophy hunters who pay tens of thousands of dollars to travel to African nations and kill endangered and at-risk animals, including African elephants, and import their trophies home. We are working hard to stop both.
American trophy hunters imported an average of 460 African elephant trophies every year between 2005 and 2014—that’s more than one elephant trophy every day. In the last Congress, we helped introduce the ProTECT Act, a bill that would help stop the trophy hunting of any species listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including African elephants, and we hope to see it introduced again this Congress.
In 2015, we submitted a petition with partner groups urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the African elephant as endangered. In light of these latest findings, we urge the agency to expedite its findings on our petition and give both species of African elephants the ESA protection they need so urgently.
We have also been working with states to pass legislation to end wildlife trafficking, and 12 states, including California, Hawaii, Oregon, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, and Washington, D.C., now have laws banning the trade in ivory and other wildlife body parts. There are now efforts in Massachusetts and Connecticut to pass similar laws.
Last month, we successfully defended New York’s ivory ban in federal court from a challenge by trade groups, and set a promising precedent for other states that have passed or are considering similar laws ending ivory and rhino horn sales.
Elephants are cherished icons for adults and children the world over. But more importantly, they are a keystone species who shape the forests and lands they live in. Their very survival is tied to the wellbeing of our planet. The IUCN’s announcement is a terrifying one, but it is also an opportunity for range nations and for those that deal in trafficked and trophy hunted products to act swiftly and pull out all the stops to protect these gentle giants. A world without them is simply unthinkable.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.