Nature and Biodiversity

5 things you may not know about elephants

A group of elephants are seen near a watering hole inside Hwange National Park, in Zimbabwe, October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo - RC124AF2E6C0

Elephants are the world's largest land animal, but their numbers have declined significantly. Image: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Joe Myers
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  • Elephants are the world's largest land animal.
  • They play a vital role in supporting ecosystems and biodiversity.
  • But they continue to face threats from poachers and habitat destruction.
  • Conservation efforts are making a difference, though.
  • World Elephant Day, celebrated every 12 August, aims to raise awareness and fight for their future.

Elephants are instantly recognizable, thanks to their distinctive trunks and, of course, their vast size - in fact, they're the world's largest land animal.

But, they face a variety of threats, and numbers have declined significantly over the past century.

To raise awareness of these challenges and help them fight for their future, World Elephant Day was created in 2012 and is recognized every 12 August.

"World Elephant Day is a rallying call for people to support organizations that are working to stop the illegal poaching and trade of elephant ivory and other wildlife products, protect wild elephant habitat, and provide sanctuaries and alternative habitats for domestic elephants to live freely,” explains the day's co-founder Patricia Sims.

Here are five things you might not have known about them - from conservation to biodiversity.

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1. Their numbers have fallen dramatically over the past two centuries

Although once a common sight across Africa and Asia, elephant numbers fell dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. The cause? The ivory trade and habitat loss.

While some populations are now stable, that's far from consistently true. Poaching, habitat destruction and conflict with humans continue to threaten numbers.

The WWF reports that Asian elephant numbers have dropped by at least 50% over the past three generations. Just 40,000-50,000 are left in the wild, resulting in the species being classified as endangered.

The African elephant is also regarded as vulnerable, with around 415,000 left on the continent. An estimated 35,000 African elephants are still killed every year for their tusks, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.

Number of African elephants
African elephant numbers have fallen sharply since the 1500s. Image: Our World in Data

2. Conservation efforts are making a difference

Organizations across the world are working together to tackle some of the major threats elephant populations face.

Successful initiatives include tackling the ivory trade. International commercial trade was banned in 1989 and the world's largest ivory market, China, announced in 2016 that all ivory sales within the country would be banned.

Other projects work to introduce protected areas, in order to prevent habitat destruction and keep elephants safe from poaching. For example, the KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi) Transfrontier Conservation effort has witnessed strong population growth over the past 50 years.

Preventing human-elephant conflict is also important, with one project in Kenya even using beekeeping to help. The WWF explains that poverty and lack of incentives can promote negative attitudes towards conservation efforts. But, the hives provide an income to local communities, with studies showing that integrating beekeeping into elephant conservation leads to reduced conflict in the long run.

3. Elephants have a vital role to play in shaping ecosystems

And that matters because elephants are vital for supporting ecosystems, and are considered a keystone species for the role they play. They trample forests and dense grasslands, supporting the growth of smaller species.

They also travel vast distances, dispersing seeds in their dung, supporting vegetation growth. Indeed, some research suggests that elephants could disperse seeds up to 65km, which helps to maintain the genetic diversity of many tree species and prevent local inbreeding.

“The implication is that elephants are absolutely critical to the integrity of these African savanna ecosystems," Greg Adler, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, said in response to the 2017 research.


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4. They've got big appetites

They spend up to three-quarters of their day eating and consume more than 100kg of plant matter every day.

Both Asian and African elephants typically eat a diet of grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves and small stems. They're also never far from water as they can drink nearly 200 litres of water a day.

But, their habitats are shrinking, putting them more frequently in competition with humans for resources.


5. More than 150,000 people have recently been evacuated in China because of a migrating herd

A 14-strong herd of Asian elephants has recently been roaming in southwest China.

They left their original home in a nature reserve around 17 months ago and have travelled more than 500km since - although now look to be on the way home.

On their way, they've caused more than $1.07m in damage and forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents in Yunnan Province, to prevent contact between the two groups.

Wild Asian elephants lie on the ground and rest in Jinning district of Kunming, Yunnan province, China June 7, 2021. A herd of 15 wild elephants has trekked hundreds of kilometres after leaving their forest habitat in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, according to local media. Picture taken June 7, 2021 with a drone. China Daily via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC2MVN99G9FJ
The migrating herd were spotted mid-nap in June. Image: VIA REUTERS
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