Elephants were once a common sight throughout the Asian and African continents. Due to their prized tusks, however, they were hunted in massive numbers throughout the 19th century. Now, restrictions on ivory trade have allowed some populations to stabilize, although they remain severely depleted across the whole of their former ranges. They also face other threats from habitat destruction, continued poaching for ivory, meat and hides; trophy hunting; and removal because of conflicts with humans.
Two elephant species have long been recognized—Asian elephants, identified by their relatively small ears and four (occasionally five) hooves on the hind feet, and African elephants, recognizable for their massive ears and three hooves on the hind foot. Recent DNA studies, however, suggest that the “African elephant” actually consists of two distinct species, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
Regardless of the species, elephants in the wild need a great deal of space and sustenance, wandering in small to large herds—often over very large areas—and consuming several hundred pounds of plant matter every day. Because of their nomadic nature, elephants frequently compete with humans for many of the same, sometimes scarce, resources.
Poaching of elephants has declined since a ban on the trade in ivory products was passed in 1989 by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Unfortunately however, ivory poaching remains a widespread problem, exacerbated by efforts to overturn the ban by some African nations and countries where demand for ivory is high.
Habitat loss is also a growing concern as human populations expand. Human settlements in elephant territory—aside from isolating many wild elephant populations by severing ancient migratory routes—can lead to confrontations between elephants and people, with deaths on both sides.