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

Number of proboscidea species alive in the early Cenozoic era: ~170
Number of proboscidea species still alive: 3*

Lone surviving proboscidea – proboscidea/elephantidae also known as the elephant

Where elephants fall in terms of size for terrestrial animals: No. 1

Where elephants fall among the world’s top 10 frugivores? No. 1
(Source [pdf)

Number of countries where elephants exist in the wild: 50
Number of countries in Africa: 37
Number of countries in Asia: 13
(Source [pdf)

Elephants in Africa

Estimated number of African elephants in 2012: 472,000**
(Source [pdf])

Estimated number of African elephants in 1980: 1.2 million

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.

Elephant Threats

Primary threats to elephants:

  • Loss of habitat
  • Poaching

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

Life expectancy of elephant in the wild: up to 60 or 70 years
How many more times elephants are likely to die premature deaths in zoos than in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya: 2.8
(Source [pdf])


More Reading


End Note

*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.