World Elephant Day: why are elephants endangered?

Elephants have been under threat from habitat changes and poachers  (PA Archive)
Elephants have been under threat from habitat changes and poachers (PA Archive)

World Elephant Day, taking place on August 12, aims to raise awareness of the threats facing the world’s largest land animal.

Over the past century, around 90 per cent of wild African elephants have been wiped out, according to WWF, leaving an estimated 415,000 alive. Asian elephants have also seen a significant decline in numbers, now down to only around 50,000 in the wild.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of World Elephant Day, which was co-founded in 2012 by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Sims and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation of Thailand.

It aims to provide a “rallying call for people to support organisations 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,” according to Sims.

Why are elephants endangered?

Poaching and the trade of elephant ivory have long played a major part in their demise. Though many countries have already banned the trade of such products – in June this year the UK’s Ivory Act came into effect, enforcing a near-total ban on elephant ivory sales – some buyers still consider it a symbol of luck or status.

“Despite an international ivory trade ban, around 17,000 African elephants are still being killed each year for their ivory, an average of 47 a day,” says WWF chief wildlife adviser Paul De Ornellas. “WWF is supporting the training and equipping of rangers to deter poachers, while working to stamp out demand from would-be buyers.”

Elephants have also come under threat from habitat changes, including deforestation, affecting their ability to reach water, feeding and breeding grounds. According to WWF, the space available to elephants in Africa has more than halved since 1979.

“As their habitat is lost to human settlements, infrastructure and agriculture, elephants find it harder to follow their traditional migration routes and this can mean they’re coming into more frequent and sometimes dangerous contact with people,” says De Ornellas.

“WWF is working with local partners to protect and manage elephant habitats and create ‘wildlife corridors’ so elephants can migrate safely. At the same time we’re working with local communities to monitor elephant movements and to help them to live alongside elephants. Adopting an elephant with WWF helps to support this vital work.”

Prince William has been a passionate advocate for elephant conservation (AP)
Prince William has been a passionate advocate for elephant conservation (AP)

Many famous faces have spoken out about the need to protect elephants, including Barack Obama, David Beckham, Lupita Nyong’o and Prince William. In 2017, addressing the International Wildlife Trade Conference in London, the future king said: “It is heartbreaking to think that by the time my children George, Charlotte and Louis are in their twenties, elephants, rhinos and tigers might well be extinct in the wild.

“I for one am not willing to look my children in the eye and say that we were the generation that let this happen on our watch.”

In 2014, Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly donated $1 million (£820,000) to an elephant charity at a Malibu fundraiser.

And in 2012, Star Trek legend William Shatner narrated the documentary Return to the Forest, which was released to mark the first World Elephant Day.

The project told the story of the work of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation and its mission to save elephants in Thailand.