Status of elephant populations, levels of illegal killing and the trade in ivory: A report to the CITES Standing Committee
IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG)


Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP17) on Trade in elephant specimens, in paragraph 11, directs the Secretariat, pending the necessary external funding, to: (a) report on information and analyses provided by MIKE [by the CITES Secretariat] and ETIS [by TRAFFIC]…, subject to the availability of adequate new MIKE or ETIS data, at relevant meetings of the Standing Committee; and (b) prior to relevant meetings of the Standing Committee, invite the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) to provide an overview of trade in elephant specimens as recorded in the CITES database; the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) African and Asian Elephant Specialist Groups to submit any new and relevant information on the conservation status of elephants, pertinent conservation actions and management strategies; and African elephant range States to provide information on progress made in the implementation of the African Elephant Action Plan. On the basis of the information specified above, the Secretariat is to recommend actions for consideration by the Conference of the Parties or the Standing Committee.

This is the fifth report prepared by the entities for the CITES Standing Committee, with previous reports having
been provided for SC61 (Geneva, August 2011), SC62 (Geneva, July 2012), SC65 (Geneva, July 2014) and
SC66 (Geneva, January 2016).

African elephants (Loxodonta africana): status, threats and conservation actions

This Section has been prepared by the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG).

The IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) provides technical expertise and advice to
governments, NGOs, academic institutions and individuals in support of elephant conservation and
management of the African elephant. As a critical component of this mandate, the AfESG maintains the African
Elephant Database (AED), the formal repository for geo-spatial information on the numbers and distribution of
the species. It also publishes the African Elephant Status Report (AESR). Full status reports were published
in 1995, 1998, 2002, 2007, 2016 and provisional updates were released online for 2012 (in 2013) and 2013
(in 2015). The AESR 2016, which was released in September 2016, is the first full status report in almost a
decade and, importantly, in a decade of major change for the species.

The African Elephant Status Report 2016

This report is largely based on the AESR 2016 (Thouless et al. 2016), which summarizes data contained within
the AED up until the end of 2015. The AESR 2016 includes both an update of elephant numbers and range.
The AESR 2016 presents more than 275 new or updated estimates for individual elephant populations across
Africa, with over 180 of these arising from systematic surveys since the AESR 2007. New data came mainly
from aerial surveys from the Great Elephant Census, other aerial surveys and from dung counts in Central
Africa carried out primarily by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wide Fund for Nature

From 1995 to 2016, elephant numbers in the AfESG’s status reports and updates were aggregated into
“Definite,” “Probable,” “Possible,” and “Speculative” (DPPS) classes using a categorization system based on
data reliability. This categorization system gave an indication of the level of certainty that could be placed on
a given number, as determined by the method used to collect the data and how well it was carried out. The
2016 report, although using the same system for categorizing data reliability, presents elephant numbers as
either “Estimates” (with a ± 95% confidence limit) or “Guesses” (with a minimum to maximum range) instead
of using the former DPPS system. “Estimates” are based on data from systematic surveys, including aerial,
ground and dung counts and individual registration studies, whereas “Guesses” are based on data from areas
not systematically surveyed and include some dung surveys, expert opinions, degraded data and modelled

The intent of the new system is to provide an easier and more intuitive means to tally total numbers of elephants
to derive “Estimates” and “Guesses” at national, regional and continental levels. The number of elephant within
each country sum to give national level totals; national level totals sum to give regional totals; and regional
level totals sum to give the continental total. “Guesses”, however, are not completely additive. For the AESR 2016, data from 2006 (AESR 2007; Blanc et al. 2007) were also aggregated under this new system, making it
possible to make direct comparisons of changes in elephant numbers between 2006 and 2015.

Similar to previous status reports, elephant range is categorized as known, possible and doubtful (Figure 1).
The area of known and possible range sums to give range at national, regional and continental levels, with the
% of this area for which elephant estimates and guesses are available presented as assessed range, which
together with the remaining unassessed range sums to 100%. The only countries where 100% of range has
been assessed are Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Swaziland.
All these countries have very small populations with the exception of Gabon whose country total for 2015 is
based on modeling for 100% of its range.

More detail on all information presented in this report can be found in the AESR 2016.

Continental overview – status and threats

There are currently 37 African elephant range States with a known and possible elephant range of over 3.1
million km2. All populations of African elephant have been listed on CITES Appendix I since 1989, except for
four national populations that were transferred to Appendix II (Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe in 1997, and
South Africa in 2000). The African elephant is listed as Vulnerable (A2a; Ver 3.1) in the IUCN Red List (Blanc,
2008). The AfESG has recently begun the process of updating the Red List assessment.

Guinea Bissau and Somalia are still classified as range States despite uncertainty regarding the current status
of their populations. Eritrea has not been surveyed since 1997 but may have 120 elephants in an unprotected
area in the south-west of the country on the border with Ethiopia. Other range States with very small
populations (under 100) include Swaziland, Niger, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

The AESR 2016 revealed that Africa’s elephant population has seen the worst declines in 25 years, mainly
due to poaching over the past ten years. The continental total is now thought to be 415,428 (± 20,111)
elephants, with an additional 117,127 to 135,384 elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. The
estimates for 2015 are approximately 93,000 lower than in 2006, but this figure includes around 18,000 from
previously uncounted populations, so the real decline from estimates is considered to be closer to 111,000
over ten years. The proportion of elephant range for which elephant estimates are available is 62%.

African elephants are not evenly distributed across their range and neither is their status or the threats facing
them; populations in different regions and countries continue to face very different challenges. Southern,
Eastern, Central and West Africa have 71%, 20%, 6% and 3% of the continental population respectively (Figure
2; Table 1). Poaching losses are still being reported across much of the continent and it is unknown whether
the recent commitments to ban domestic ivory trade will result in a decline in ivory poaching. However, whilst
much of the current conservation focus is on the threat of poaching, in the medium to long-term human
expansion into elephant habitats, civil unrest and climate change are all likely to constitute the greatest threats
to the survival of the species.

It is essential that landscape planning to support the coexistence of elephants and humans is carried out at all
scales across the elephant range. Around 33 economic ‘development corridors’ have been planned, or are
being implemented already, across Africa and if completed would total over 53,000 km in length (Laurance et
al. 2015). These are therefore likely to significantly impact elephant populations across their range, although
the proportion of critical elephant range that falls into these corridors is currently unknown and urgently needs
to be assessed. Human-elephant conflict, already on the rise, is a symptom of this rapid land transformation
and only likely to continue to increase. This is likely to result in increased damage to both people and elephants.
Habitat loss and fragmentation will result in increasingly fragmented elephant populations, which are already
at high risk of loss of viability. West Africa demonstrates well the end result of over a century of significant
elephant population losses following unplanned development resulting in severe habitat degradation and
growing resource scarcity. Elephant populations are small and fragmented, increasingly vulnerable to
extinction. In the past ten years alone, 12 elephant populations have been reportedly lost across the region (in
Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo).

Sub-regional summaries

Central Africa

The estimated number of elephants in Central Africa is 24,119 (± 2,865), with an additional 87,190 to 103,355
elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. These numbers apply to 70% (546,471 km²) of the estimated 
known and possible elephant range in Central Africa. No estimates are available for the remaining 30% of
range, which is still unassessed. Historically in Central Africa, elephants were distributed fairly evenly
throughout the region’s forests. However, political insecurity and lack of government control over remote areas
has resulted in increased levels of poaching impacting both elephant numbers and distribution, with regional
strongholds being those areas, which have experienced the least human impact.

Over the last ten years, dramatic losses of elephant populations in the region have been reported, including
the loss of approximately 16,000 to 20,000 forest elephants (60 to 80% of the population) in Minkébé National
Park in Gabon, the loss of approximately 3,000 elephants (50% of the population) in the Ndoki landscape in
Republic of Congo (Congo) and the loss of several thousand elephants in the Cameroon section of the TriNational
Dja-Odzala-Minkébé (TRIDOM) forest. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) elephant
population, once one of Africa’s most significant forest elephant populations, has declined by approximately
70% for estimates and 50% for guesses since 2006, with elephants now existing in tiny remnants across their
vast former range. Garamba National Park, in the north-east of the country, has continued to see declines in
elephant numbers in the last ten years as a result of intense and continuing poaching pressure.

Gabon and Congo now hold Africa’s most important forest elephant populations but both have been affected
by heavy poaching in recent years, as have the forest and savannah populations of Cameroon. Gabon, which
contains 12% of the total African tropical moist forest area, now contains roughly half of Africa’s forest
elephants whilst DRC contains 60% of the region’s forest and less than 10% of its forest elephants.

The savanna populations of Chad have taken heavy losses and those in the Central African Republic have
almost completely disappeared. In the last ten years, both Chad and DRC have lost one population (SiniakaMinia
Faunal Reserve in Chad and Bushimaie Reserve and Hunting Area in DRC).

Largely as a consequence of new populations being surveyed, elephant estimates from systematic surveys
have increased by about 9,000 since 2006. Substantial changes in range across Central Africa since 2006 are
largely the result of improved information rather than real changes in range, except in the case of the Central
African Republic, where almost all of the range in the north and east of the country has been lost.

Eastern Africa

The estimated number of elephants in Eastern Africa is 86,373 (± 10,549) with an additional 11,973 to 12,060
elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. These numbers apply to 62% (548,587 km²) of the estimated
known and possible elephant range in Eastern Africa. No estimates are available for the remaining 38% of
range, which is still unassessed. This region has been the most affected by poaching in the last ten years and
has experienced an almost 50% elephant population reduction. Elephant numbers have declined by
approximately 79,000 (taking into account new populations that have been surveyed since 2006) for sites with
comparable survey techniques in 2006 and 2015. This has been largely attributed to an over 60% decline in
Tanzania’s elephant population. Despite this, Tanzania remains the region’s stronghold, with an estimate of
50,433 (± 8,502) elephants in 2015.

Although some sites have recorded declines, elephant numbers have been stable or increasing since 2006 in
Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. Increases in elephant populations in Ethiopia and South Sudan are likely the
result of improved information. There is very little recent information on elephant populations in Eritrea and
Somalia, both of which reportedly have elephant populations confined to a single area. Range expansion has
been observed in the Laikipia-Samburu and Magadi areas in Kenya: in the Laikipia-Samburu ecosystem, this
has been linked to the development of community-based conservation and the recovery of elephants from
heavy poaching in the 1970s to 1980s.

Southern Africa

The estimated number of elephants in Southern Africa is 293,447 (± 16,682) with an additional 15,157 to
16,672 elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. These numbers apply to 55% (734,824 km²), of the
estimated known and possible elephant range in Southern Africa. No estimates are available for the remaining
45% of range, which is still unassessed. While poaching has not had the same impact in Southern Africa as in
other areas, the region has recently faced a growing poaching threat. Elephant numbers in Southern Africa
have declined by approximately 27,000 (taking into account new populations that have been surveyed since
2006) for sites with comparable survey techniques in 2006 and 2015. Although there have been population
declines in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the main contributor to this decline is Botswana (however, see
comments below). Zambia’s elephant population appears to be relatively stable. Zimbabwe’s elephant
population declined due to reductions in the Sebungwe and Lower Zambezi populations as a result of poaching, partially compensated by increases in populations in the south-east of the country. South-east Angola has experienced heavy losses due to poaching. Mozambique’s elephant population has been reduced by an estimated 25%, mostly in the north due to severe and on-going poaching. Malawi has small, fragmented elephant populations, some of which have declined since 2006 because of poaching. Swaziland’s elephant populations are well known, being mainly restricted to fenced enclosures. Elephant populations in Namibia and South Africa have increased.

Botswana has by far the largest elephant population of any country in Africa, with over 99% of these in the
northern part of the country. The reported decline between 2006 and 2015 is ambiguous and may be the result
of uncounted elephants, range expansion, seasonal movements into and out of the surveyed area, increased
poaching or methodological differences between surveys. Range expansion has been observed into the west
towards Namibia and into central Botswana, with notable numbers of elephants observed for the first time in a
survey in 2015 in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

West Africa

The estimated number of elephants in West Africa is 11,489 (± 2,583) with an additional 2,886 to 3,376
elephants in areas not systematically surveyed. These numbers apply to 72% (102,850 km²), of the estimated
known and possible elephant range in West Africa. No estimates are available for the remaining 28% of range,
which is still unassessed. With growing human populations and increasing infrastructure development, many
countries in West Africa are experiencing increased pressure on natural areas from mining, logging and rapid
transformation of land to agriculture. West Africa’s elephant populations are mostly small, fragmented and
isolated, but the overall number of elephants in West Africa appears to have increased since 2006. This is
attributed to population increases in the trans-frontier “WAP” complex that straddles the border between Benin,
Burkina Faso and Niger and remains the stronghold of West Africa’s remaining elephants.

Estimates for Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo have stayed more or less
constant with some higher and lower guesses, while estimates for Guinea, Mali and Nigeria have declined
since 2006. Guinea is now reduced to a single small population. In Mali, elephants are restricted to one area
where they have huge ranges making them difficult to survey. Niger’s few remaining elephants are thought to
still move in and out of the country as part of the “WAP” complex. Estimates for Liberia, where elephants are
restricted to two forested blocks, have increased slightly. Although 12 populations have been reported as lost
in West Africa, a number of small populations have continued to persist.

Priority for future surveys

The AESR 2016 uses the ‘Priority for Future Surveys’ index which is an unbiased system for setting priorities
for future surveys which includes every site. However it is worth noting two regions that are critical priorities
for future surveys. Gabon is a priority for future surveys as it is believed to be home to the majority of Africa’s
forest elephants and 80% of its elephant range has not been surveyed in the past five years, and some of it
has never been surveyed. There is still major uncertainty about the size of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier
Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) savanna elephant population of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and
Zimbabwe – the single largest on the continent – and it remains critical to undertake a coordinated survey of
this population across the whole of its range.

New and expected survey results for 2017 and 2018

In Central Africa, forest elephant surveys are planned for some areas thought to be heavily impacted by
poaching, including in Gabon. WWF and WCS have completed some surveys, and are planning others, in the
Central African Republic, central and northern Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and DRC. Once reviewed and
incorporated into the AED, some of these surveys will help to shift many of the populations classified as
guesses into estimates. In Eastern Africa, Kenya’s forest-dwelling populations have not been surveyed since
before 2006. Dung surveys across the countries forests have recently been completed, sponsored primarily
by WCS and WWF. Surveys were also conducted in South Sudan at the end of 2016, which will improve
previous estimates. In Southern Africa, a national elephant survey in Angola is still in the process of being
planned. Efforts to coordinate and conduct a survey for the KAZA TCFA region are still underway. Mozambique
is planning a national elephant census in 2018, the results of which are expected in early 2019.

Elephant conservation action plans and strategies

At the continental level, the African Elephant Action Plan (AEAP) was adopted by a consensus of all the African
elephant range States in 2010. The AfESG supported the technical preparation of this first continent-wide
AEAP, a framework to guide action and financing, which is now in the final third of its life span. Given the time
required to prepare the technical background needed to revise such plans, the AfESG is looking for funding to
embark on a series of new analyses to support the revision and is hoping to partner with UNEP in facilitating
the process to initiate a renewed and fully collaborative process to develop a post-2020 AEAP.

As reported in SC66 Doc. 47.1 while regional action plans have been developed for Central, Southern and
West Africa, they are outdated and no longer considered reliable in guiding conservation and management

There is a growing number of range States that are drafting or updating their national action plans (Tables 2
and 3). In 2016 (SC66 Doc. 47.1) Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Niger, Mozambique, Malawi and
Tanzania were all reported as having updated, or to be in the process of updating, their action plans since
2010. Since then, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Namibia, Uganda and Zimbabwe have also either updated, or are
in the process of updating, their action plans.

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