It is very hard to know how many African elephants are left in the world, mostly due to their habitat. Often they occupy large woodlands and forests, but they also inhabit savannas and grasslands. There are only estimates as to how big is the threat they are facing in reality. Their situation appears to be getting better (in 1996 they were endangered), and their numbers are increasing today. However, they are still far from being safe. In some regions of Africa, such as Burundi or Gambia they are now extinct, and in some regions, conservationists are reintroducing the species (like Swaziland).

Although somewhere their numbers are declining, in other regions their numbers are increasing. A vast amount of effort, manpower and money is essential to assess their situation. An estimation from 2014 was a total population of 700,000, and the latest released report is from IUCN stating 415,000 individual. It might not seem that bad, what makes it dramatic is their total population not much more than 40 years ago, in 1976. 1.3 million African elephants were roaming over 7 million square km lands.

The largest land animal

Elephants are the largest animals on land. They are highly intelligent, and possess the ability to feel emotions, and live social lives. Their importance is undeniable. Many other species rely on their migration. As elephants migrate through vegetation and feed on plants they also create gaps in the forests. These paths are later used by other, mainly smaller animals to find water. Whilst creating paths they also overturn the soil allowing plant species to thrive.

Their valuable tusk allowing them in dry seasons to dig for water. This is vital for them, but also for the entire ecosystem around them. In many species, there are some features owned by either the male or the female. However, an elephant’s tusk is not one of these. Both males and females have these. An interesting fact about the tusk itself, that in reality, it is just a modified incisor tooth, that grows for life.

Elephants (just like gorillas) have a very ineffective digestive system, and barely absorbing half of what they eat. This also means that often their dung contains valuable seeds that will blossom once again. This is incredibly important, as they can grow to be up to 6 tonnes. To feed such a large body, but have a digestive system like theirs means that they have to eat more or less all day.

African elephants also have very large ears. This allows them to control their body temperature by emitting heat. It is also a feature that helps us differentiate the African and Asian elephants (apart from their very different head shape). As the temperature is milder where the Asian elephants live, they do not need such massive ears.

Emotional contagion

Due to the species emotional abilities, African elephants form very strong bonds within their families. The oldest and largest female leads the herd and ensures their safety at all times. They live in a beautiful matriarchal society. Living in tight groups offers them more security. Individuals can live up to 70 years, and their calves are born after a gestation period of 22 months. Some calf can be 100-120 kg when they come into this world. Wow!

Elephants have amazing long-term memories, and there are studies saying that a matriarch can remember a drought that happened decades ago. They also appear to feel a sort of empathy for injured, or ill elephants. They even mourn their dead. Their consciousness about their bonds and their feelings are absolutely amazing.

They are also one of those animals that can recognise themselves in a mirror. Other animals capable of doing this are humans, apes and dolphins.

Main threats to elephants

Naturally, the biggest danger this majestic animal has to face is humanity. As we are overpopulating the planet we need an ever-increasing area to live on, destroying forests, grasslands any many more to build in the place of them. Elephants are losing their habitat, or suffer from the fragmentation of it. Due to the growing demand more land is converted to agriculture and this is causing conflicts between humans and elephants. They often raid areas and crops, and this is dangerous for both humans and them. The fight for resources is real, and it costs lives.

Another massive danger is the ivory trade. An estimated 100 elephants are hunted down and killed a day (!) for their tusk or meat. The price of ivory seemed to increase uncontrollably for a very long time, and Asia is the biggest trader for them. As long as there is a demand this will never stop, however, the species is dangerously running out of time, and space. Fortunately, the prices of ivory suddenly dropped in 2018 after a ban in China, and this certainly had an impact. The number of elephants killed for their tusk is decreasing now due to the decreasing demand.

Yet again, it is greed and the neverending lust for money, unnecessary items that will push a species towards extinction. Today we have to face the reality that overpopulation affects not just us but everything else around us. Eventually, even humanity will have to fight for their lives and resources if we don’t change the way how we live right now.

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