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Africa’s changing elephant population

African elephants once lived throughout most of the continent, from the northern coast to the southern cape.

They have always been valued for their ivory, which was used and traded by many African cultures. In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans prized the material. Arab traders and Europeans later expanded the trade worldwide.

The combined impact of the ivory trade and habitat loss, from desertification and human population growth, caused a decline in elephant numbers. By about 1600, there were no elephants remaining in north Africa. In the 19th and early 20th century, huge amounts of ivory were being shipped to Europe. Later in the 20th century, Africa’s rapidly expanding population took over many areas of land that would have been occupied by elephants. And in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the ivory trade reached new heights, fuelled by a massive demand in Asia.

African elephant populations have only been consistently monitored since 1976. The initial results of the African Elephant Survey and Conservation Programme showed major declines during the 1970s and further studies suggested that elephant populations had more than halved in some areas between 1981 and 1987. As a result of this rapid decline, and in response to international pressure, the African Elephant was placed on Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna (CITES) in 1989. This means that it is illegal for countries that belong to the Convention to buy or sell ivory or other elephant products.

Today, the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been moved to CITES Appendix II. This allows trade in elephant products such as hides and meat, but not ivory. One-off sales of ivory from existing stocks within these countries have also been approved, under certain conditions.

In 2002, the African Elephant Database estimated the entire African elephant population to be between 402,000 and 677,000 animals. It is difficult to provide a specific number since many animals live outside protected areas and migrate across huge distances. However, data analysis of reliable counts indicate that the number of elephants in Southern Africa increased between 1994 and 2002. It is also thought that the populations in East Africa are slowing increasing. Numbers for Central and West Africa are more variable and it is difficult to draw any conclusions about population trends.

Kruger’s Elephants

San bushmen lived in the Kruger area between 7000 BC and 300 AD. Elephants were a popular theme in San paintings but only three out of the 109 rock art sites within Kruger feature the animals. This suggests elephants were rare in the area. The lack of ivory in archaeological sites and studies on long-living baobab trees indicate that elephant densities in Kruger and adjacent areas were probably low during the pre-European area. Although there are many tales of hunting by Europeans in the Kruger area, elephant ranks low on the list of animals that were pursued. If there were any elephants in the area at the time of the Europeans’ arrival, it seems likely they were hunted to extinction between 1880 and 1896.

When the Sabi Game Reserve (part of what is now Kruger National Park) was proclaimed in 1898 the warden reported no elephants. He first noted their presence in 1905 near the confluence of the Letaba and Olifants rivers. There were no fences around the protected area at that time and it is likely that the animals had crossed over from Mozambique. Protected from hunters and with no real predators, their numbers grew.

Kruger National Park is currently consulting stakeholders to help determine its future elephant management policy.