You only have to look in the mirror to know who is the elephants' enemy number one. Scientists, without thinking, often list adult elephants as having no natural predators, and yet people, Homo sapiens, are directly (e.g. shooting, spearing, snaring, poisoning) and indirectly (e.g. destroying habitat, blocking migrations routes and depleting water sources) responsible for the majority of elephant mortalities. Our ancestors are credited with the extinction of the mammoths, but our generation will decide the fate of the world's remaining elephants, the largest extant land mammal.
The survival and well being of elephants are threatened by:
- Escalating poaching, or illegal killing, for the commercial trade in ivory and meat.
- Growing demands of exploding human populations and poverty.
- Increasing loss and fragmentation of natural habitats and lack of land-use planning.
- Rising conflict with humans over diminishing resources.
Unchecked growth of human populations is the root cause of the decline in wild fauna and flora across the planet, including elephants and their habitats. The demand for raw materials by developed countries (i.e. timber, minerals, gems stones and even ivory), and the need for basic resouces (e.g. water, food, shelter and fuelwood) for human populations in developing countries are resulting in the rapid depletion of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems. Exacerbated by poverty and civil unrest, the loss and fragmentation of natural habitats is also causing rising conflict between elephants and people over diminishing resources.
After 15 years of relative calm, the market for ivory is on the rise again, stimulated, in our opinion, by the sale in 2008 of stock-piled ivory from some southern African states to China and Japan. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy has created a growing middle class with an interest in luxury goods, such as ivory. China's investment in development projects in African range states and the increasing number of people in poverty provides an incentive and a conduit to this growing market.
These threats impact the survival prospects of all three species of elephants, as well as the welfare of elephants as individuals. The impact of poaching and conflict is greater than what can be accounted for by the number of tusks recovered and more than the sum of elephants shot or speared. These activities cause the break-down of the very fabric of elephant society. The death of an experienced matriarch, for example, causes a knock-on effect, impacting the survival of generations.
A different but very real threat to the well-being of individuals is the use of elephants in entertainment. Each year elephants are captured from the wild for sale to zoos and circuses, or for use in elephant-back safaris and other captive situations. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have gained from decades of scientific study, human ignorance and greed is still the cause of the mistreatment and direct abuse of thousands of elephants.