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African elephants

African savanna elephant Zimbabwe
Scientific name: Loxodonta africana
Number remaining: Around 470,000
Extinction risk: Vulnerable
Habitat: savannah, forests and grassland across sub-Saharan Africa including the Maasai Mara, Namibia, Virunga and the east African coast

About the African elephant

There are differences between elephants that live in the forests of central Africa and those that roam the grassy plains. For example, the forest elephant has a smaller body and ears than the African savannah elephant and its tusks are straighter and point downwards.

Female African elephants are very social animals. They live in strongly bonded groups – called herds – with their relatives. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males. Elephants need a lot of space to find food and water – they can roam areas bigger than 30,000 sq km.

The African elephants’ range has declined by over 50% since 1979 – and their populations are becoming more fragmented. While some are secure and expanding, other populations are in decline – particularly in central Africa.

With only 600,000 elephants in the wild – and threats from poaching, habitat loss and conflict with people – this intelligent and powerful animal is officially classed as vulnerable.

Find out how you can help protect african elephants

Why elephants matter

A herd of elephants, Africa

Elephants play a crucial role in their ecosystem. They are the architects of their landscape – opening up woodlands as they feed and roam. For example, in forests elephants create clearings which allow new plants to grow and naturally regenerate the forest.

They also play a vital role in seed dispersal, especially for large seeds that are not spread by smaller animals. Without elephants these larger seeds would either be dispersed over shorter distances, dispersed less often, or not dispersed at all. This would affect the natural structure and functioning of the forest ecosystem – which is important to people and other animals.

Local people also depend on the natural resources within elephant habitat for food, fuel and income. As one of Africa’s ‘big five’, elephants are a popular sight for tourists. This brings benefits to local people – ecotourism can be an important source of income for them.

By helping protect elephants, we’re helping conserve their habitat, supporting local communities, and making sure natural resources are available for generations to come.

Threats to elephants

Illegal ivory

Illegal wildlife trade

African elephants are vulnerable to poaching for the illegal trade in their ivory and meat. Their ivory tusks are the most sought after, but their meat and skin are also traded. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. Ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewellery – China is the biggest consumer market for such products.

Farmers working at a mint (Mentha arbensis) processing plant. WWF's Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) program introduced the idea of mentha farming in order to reduce human/wildlife conflict and to increase farmer's income through greater productivity and higher yields. Lamahai, western Terai, Nepal.

Human expansion

As the human population expands, more land is being converted to agriculture. So elephant habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented. This means elephants and people come into contact more often, and conflicts occur. Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods – and may even kill people. Elephants are sometimes killed in retaliation.

How WWF is helping protect African elephants


African elephant

African elephant programme

Our African elephant programme aims to create stability for elephant populations and their habitats in 20 landscapes by 2017. To achieve this, we’re focusing on tackling all threats to this species – poaching, habitat loss and conflicts between people and elephants.

Sniffer dogs are specially trained to locate smuggled tiger parts - helping WWF and TRAFFIC stop illegal wildlife trade

Tackling illegal wildlife trade

We’re helping reduce poaching by improving protection and management of their habitat, including helping to train and equip law enforcement and anti-poaching teams. We work alongside TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) to investigate, expose and crack down on the illegal trade in ivory – and to reduce the demand, so this trade will no longer be a significant threat to elephant conservation.

Zebra and Wildebeest - Mara River Basin

Creating new protected areas

We’re also helping create new protected areas and setting up wildlife corridors that link fragmented habitats. It means elephants have more space to roam without coming into villages, and different populations can mix and breed.

How you can help protect African elephants