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Elephant

Overview

Once common throughout Africa and Asia, elephant numbers were severely depleted during the 20th century, largely due to the massive ivory trade. While some populations are now stable and growing, poaching, conflict and habitat destruction continue to threaten the species.

  • Weight
    4-6 tons
  • Length
    18-24 ft.

The largest land mammal on earth, the African elephant weighs up to eight tons. The elephant is distinguished by its massive body, large ears and a long trunk, which has many uses ranging from using it as a hand to pick up objects, as a horn to trumpet warnings, an arm raised in greeting to a hose for drinking water or bathing.

Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They are much smaller in size and their ears are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shape ears of the African species. Only some Asian male elephants have tusks. All African elephants, including females, have tusks. Elephants are either left or right-tusked and the one they use more is usually smaller because of wear and tear. The Asian elephant has four toes on the hind foot and five on the forefoot, while the African elephant has three on the hind foot and five on the forefoot.

Led by a matriarch, elephants are organized into complex social structures of females and calves, while male elephants tend to live in isolation. A single calf is born to a female once every 4-5 years and after a gestation period of 22 months—the longest of any mammal. These calves stay with their mothers for years and are also cared for by other females in the group.

The two species of elephants—African and Asian—need extensive land to survive. Roaming in herds and consuming hundreds of pounds of plant matter in a single day, both species of elephant require extensive amounts of food, water and space. As a result, these large mammals place great demands on the environment and often come into conflict with people in competition for resources.

Learning to Live in Harmony with Asian Elephants

WWF works in a number of countries in Asia to prevent and mitigate human-elephant conflict. In addition to monitoring elephant movement to understand where they travel, what they encounter and their habits as they pertain to crop raiding, we help communities employ a variety of methods to keep elephants out of human settlements and safe in the wild.

elephant patrol

Why They Matter

  • Elephants help maintain forest and savanna ecosystems for other species, and are integrally tied to rich biodiversity.

  • Elephants directly influence forest composition and density, and can alter the broader landscape. In tropical forests, elephants create clearings and gaps in the canopy that encourage tree regeneration. In the savannas, they reduce bush cover to create an environment favorable to a mix of browsing and grazing animals. 

  • The seeds of many plant species are dependent on passing through an elephant's digestive tract before they can germinate. It is calculated that at least a third of tree species in central African forests rely on elephants in this way for distribution of seeds.

Threats

Shelves of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers

The greatest threats facing elephants today are poaching, conflict with humans, and habitat loss and degradation. Elephants across Africa and Asia are being poached for their ivory at increasing levels. 

Habitat Loss

Elephants are also losing their habitats—and ancient migratory routes—due to expanding human settlements, plantation development and the construction of infrastructure such as roads, canals and pipelines. As a result, the level of human-elephant conflict rises as elephants are forced to try access resources.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory. However, there are still some thriving but unregulated domestic ivory markets in a number of countries, which fuel an illegal international trade. Poaching to meet growing demand from affluent Asian countries is driving up the rate of poaching. In some countries, political unrest contributes to elephant poaching.

What WWF Is Doing

Research and Monitoring

WWF establishes new protected areas within elephant ranges and improving management effectiveness within existing protected areas. We help to determine the population status of elephants in sites across Africa and Asia to make our conservation projects more effective. The results of the MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) surveys in Central Africa provided baseline data on key elephant populations like elephant hotspots and areas where poaching activities are taking place. We also radio collared pygmy elephants in Borneo and forest elephants in Cameroon, which provided important insights into their natural history. Such information makes it possible for WWF and partners to prioritize specific sites and issues for intervention.

Man playing with a young Sumatran elephant in Tesso Nilo National Park, Indonesia

Reducing Conflict between People and Elephants

Elephants

WWF has trained elephants and local people to form a "flying squad" that drives wild elephants away from farms and back into the forests.

To increase public support for elephant conservation by reducing conflict, WWF helps train wildlife managers and local communities to use modern methods and tools to mitigate human-elephant conflict. We mobilize communities to help protect their crops through elephant monitoring to provide early warning systems, erect fences where required, and educate communities to reduce conflict through behavior change. Our long-term goal is to put in place proper land use planning that gives elephants space for seasonal movements, combined with fences to protect crops and infrastructure. On the outskirts of the Tesso Nilo forest, WWF has trained elephants and local people to form a "flying squad" that drives wild elephants away from farms and back into the forests. In Namibia and Kenya, we help people benefit from living alongside elephants and rhinos through wildlife tourism.

Strengthening antipoaching initiatives

Rangers and community-based operations are on the frontlines of the fight against wildlife crime and WWF helps train and equip them. In Mozambique, WWF helped the government establish Quirimbas National Park to conserve more than 2,300 square miles of miombo woodland and its resident elephants. WWF trained park guards in elephant monitoring and antipoaching techniques, and works with communities to mitigate conflict with elephants.

At the borders of Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam, WWF trains, equips, and supports local staff to patrol protected areas and assess elephant distribution and numbers. In Lao PDR, WWF works to conserve the largest elephant populations in Indochina. In Vietnam, WWF worked with Fauna and Flora International to develop a national elephant action plan, which was adopted by the Vietnamese government in 1996.

Stopping illegal ivory trade

WWF works with TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, to reduce the major threat that illegal and illicit domestic ivory markets pose to wild elephants. TRAFFIC also manages a global record of ivory seizures, called ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System) that helps to identify routes and countries of particular importance in illegal trade.

Protecting Elephant Habitat

WWF works with elephant range state governments, local people and non-governmental partners to secure a future for this powerful symbol of nature by thinking beyond protected areas. We advocate for large conservation landscapes like KAZA, the largest transboundary conservation area in the world. Home to almost 250,000 elephants, we work to maintain this space to provide elephants freedom to roam.

Projects

  • Wildlife Crime Technology Project

    The world is dealing with an unprecedented spike in wildlife crime. In December 2012, Google awarded WWF a $5 million Global Impact Award to create an umbrella of technology to protect wildlife.

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