Post updated 8/13/2013, 11:18 a.m.
It’s World Elephant Day. (Who knew?!) Here’s a sober update on the ongoing saga of the proboscidian we call elephants.
All is not rosy for the elephant. From Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to Dr. Seuss’s Horton, we have been entertained by the imagined adventures of the elephant from a young age. But while these stories may have been aimed at the young reader, the plight of the elephant in them is often precarious. Babar’s adventure begins after his mother is killed by hunters and threats loom large and varied throughout the story. And Horton’s life isn’t exactly cushy.
In reality the fate of the elephant is far grimmer than any of these childhood stories relates. While the elephant is a keystone species— meaning it “plays a pivotal role in structuring both plant and animal communities” [pdf] — its survival is very much in question. Consider the stats on the surviving proboscidea, the taxonomic order of massive mammals distinguished by tusks and long flexible noses.
Some General Elephant Stats
Lone surviving proboscidea – proboscidea/elephantidae also known as the elephant
Where elephants fall in terms of size for terrestrial animals: No. 1
Number of countries where elephants exist in the wild: 50
Number of countries in Africa: 37
Number of countries in Asia: 13
Elephants in Africa
Estimated number of African elephants in 2012: 472,000**
Conservation status of the African elephant: Vulnerable
Elephants in Asia
Estimated number of Asian elephants today: 25,600-32,750
Estimate number of Asian elephants in 1950: 160,000
Conservation status of Asian elephant: Endangered
Primary difference between African and Asian elephant: Asian elephants are smaller and have more rounded ears.
Primary threats to elephants:
- Loss of habitat
Rate at which African elephant are slaughtered for their ivory by poachers: Once every 15 minutes or about 30,000 per year
Amount of money per pound ivory from an elephant tusk can fetch: $1,000
Approximate number of pounds of ivory carried by an elephant: up to about 130 pounds
- Elephants in Peril
- Wildlife Conservation Network’s Elephant Work
- Save the Elephants
- African Elephant – The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
- Asian Elephant – The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
*Whether there are two species of elephants or three (or even four) is a matter of scientific debate. Recent studies suggest that major differences, genetic and otherwise, between the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephantshould necessitate a species not a subspecies distinction. Some believe a third species of African elephants should be recognized (the West Africa elephant). Scientific bodies are still hashing out a final determination.The other settled species is the Asian elephant.
** Getting to an exact number of elephants, a wide-ranging species, is challenging, to say the least. See the African Elephant Status Report 2007 [pdf] by the World Conservation Union for more information about how they collect and organize their data.
Correction: August 13, 2013
The post was updated to clarify the different elephant species and the scientific debate on exactly how many species (as opposed to subspecies) there are. Please see the first footnote above for clarification.