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2012 Continental Totals ("2013 AFRICA" analysis)

Reports > Loxodonta africana > 2012 > Africa

All Years for Africa: 20132007200219981995


This is the fifth update on the status of the African elephant produced under the aegis of the African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC). 

Like its predecessors this update is based on data from the African Elephant Database (AED), the most comprehensive database on the conservation status of the African elephant.  Since 2009, the AfESG has been working on a major shift in the infrastructure of the AED.  The 2007 African Elephant Status Report (AESR 2007) argued for a shift to a multi-species database, expanding the infrastructure to include other species.  The AED is now housed in a ‘global’ elephant database, the African and Asian Elephant Database (AAED), available through a web interface.  At present, Asian elephant range is available, and the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group is working to integrate population data.  An open source project, the code is available for use and modification by other Specialist Groups or the general public.  The new system provides a number of advantages, not least of which is the near immediate publication of survey results as we receive them, rather than waiting for the publication of an updated set of pooled estimates.

The current 2013 provisional update includes data received up until the end of 2012. A number of areas were surveyed in 2012, but reports are not yet available. Those reports will be integrated into a final update, to be published later this year.

The continuing challenge for the AED is the interpretation of apparent trends in elephant numbers, particularly at the continental level.  We have continued the system established in the AESR 2007 for tracking the attributed causes of reported change. These are aggregated at the subregional and continental level so that readers can separate those apparent changes where valid comparisons can be made (REPEAT SURVEYS) from the rest (e.g. guesses, different survey techniques, different areas, etc.)

There has been no change in the system for categorization of different data types.  As such the elaboration on pages 6-19 of the AESR 2007 is a useful resource in interpreting the current update.  The only change is a slight change in coding for Informed and Other Guesses.  Informed guesses are noted as O (data reliability D) and other guesses are noted as O (data reliability E).

The report includes detailed references to data emanating from the CITES MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme and the Elephant Trade Information System, operated by TRAFFIC on behalf of the CITES Parties. The AfESG, responding to a mandate from the CITES Parties in Decision 14.78 (Rev. CoP15), has worked closely with both monitoring programmes to provide periodic updates on the status of the African elephant to the CITES community.  This work has provided a much deeper understanding of the entire illegal ivory trade chain from source populations to consumer markets. 

2012 Summary Totals for Africa

Data Category Definite Probable Possible Speculative
Aerial or Ground Total Counts 61,683 0 0 0
Direct Sample Counts and Reliable Dung Counts 355,476 25,599 25,599 0
Other Dung Counts 450 64,371 12,081 0
Informed Guesses 13,324 0 17,009 8,382
Other Guesses 5,412 0 0 97,288
Totals 2012 436,345 89,970 54,689 105,670
Totals 2007 472,134 82,913 84,543 51,704

Area of Range Covered by Each Data Category (km²)

Data Category Known Range Possible Range Total Range
Aerial or Ground Total Counts 222,412 30,004 252,416
Direct Sample Counts and Reliable Dung Counts 725,161 54,364 779,525
Informed Guesses 215,471 32,347 247,819
Other Dung Counts 94,760 140 94,899
Other Guesses 341,583 67,893 409,476
Unassessed Range 703,395 877,795 1,582,270
Totals 2,302,782 1,062,544 3,366,405

Continental and Regional Totals and Data Quality

Region Definite Probable Possible Speculative Range Area (km²) % of Continental Range % of Range Assessed IQI1 PFS2
Central Africa 16,486 65,104 26,310 45,738 1,005,234 30 55 .29 1
Eastern Africa 130,859 12,966 16,700 7,566 873,318 26 57 .49 1
Southern Africa 270,299 22,552 22,757 49,317 1,312,302 39 47 .38 1
West Africa 7,107 942 938 3,049 175,552 5 65 .43 3
Totals 436,345 89,970 54,689 105,670 3,366,405 100 53 .41

Africa: Summary

Current issues

Land use pressure, habitat loss, human elephant conflict, and illegal killing for both meat and ivory continue to pose threats to the long-term survival of elephant populations across Africa. Recent research also points to climate change and the increasing frequency of droughts as a major threat to elephant populations in the Sudano-Sahelian region (Bouché, 2012). Human-elephant conflict in particular continues to pose a serious challenge across much of the range. Although a number of innovative methods are emerging to add to the toolbox to help mitigate this conflict (Graham et al., 2011; King, 2011), long-term land use planning and cooperative management of elephant populations with local communities are required to provide sustainable solutions. Studies of elephant movement patterns are ongoing in many sites (Boettiger et al., 2011; Duffy et al., 2010; von Gerhardt-Weber, 2011) and these could provide useful information for land-use planning. The impact, both positive and negative, of elephants on other biodiversity continues to be a topic of research and concern (Gandiwa et al., 2011; Kohi et al., 2011; Eppset al, 2011; Odadi et al., 2011).

According to the most recent analysis from the CITES MIKE programme, poaching levels in 2011 were increasing in all four subregions, with a significant jump from 2010 to 2011.  PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants) levels for all four subregions were above 0.5, meaning that more than half of elephants found dead in MIKE sites were deemed to have been illegally killed.   It is likely that this translates to an illegal annual offtake higher than the number of elephants born annually in a naturally increasing population, resulting in net decline of the populations in those sites.

The rise in levels of illegal killing and the dynamics surrounding it are worrying, not only for small and fragmented elephant populations that could face extirpation, but also for previously secure large populations. Conflict situations are known to deteriorate further the poor protection afforded to elephants (Beyers et al., 2011) and this is of concern in particular for areas with emerging and ongoing instability. At a minimum, armed conflict hampers monitoring activities.  Reports of poisoning as a method of illegally killing elephants have emerged from a number of sites in Southern and Eastern Africa, and further investigation of this dynamic is necessary.

The most recent analysis from the Elephant Trade Information System notes that illicit trade in ivory has greatly increased, reaching the highest level in at least the last 16 years.  The frequency of large-scale ivory seizures (more than 800 kg) has also increased, indicating a highly-organized illegal ivory supply chain.

Three papers published in the last two years on the genetics of the African elephant (Rohland et al., 2010; Ishida et al., 2011a; and Ishida et al., 2011b) argue for a division of the African elephant into two species. While there are still outstanding queries from the AfESG’s "Statement on the Taxonomy of extant Loxodonta" (AfESG, 2003) which have not been satisfied, a more practical problem is where exactly to draw the geographical line between the two potential species. Until this query and the outstanding research questions from the 2003 AfESG statement have been fully clarified, the AfESG considers it premature to divide the African elephant into two species. Nevertheless, the AfESG stresses the importance in recognizing the different challenges facing forest and savannah elephant conservation. 

Population data

The current report features new or updated estimates for a total of 194 sites, 163 of which are derived from systematic surveys. 

Holding just over 52% of the continent’s DEFINITE plus PROBABLE elephants, Southern Africa has by far the largest known number of elephants in any region.  Eastern Africa holds just over 28%, Central Africa 17% and West Africa 1.6%.  The increased rank of Central Africa reflects an improvement in the quality of data and / or the extent of survey coverage, rather than an increase in the number of elephants in that region.

The number of elephants in the DEFINITE category has dropped by almost 53,000 since the AESR 2007.  Just over 9,000 of this drop can be accounted for as a result of updated estimates for sites where comparable survey techniques (coded in this update as Repeat Surveys) were employed.  The largest reason for the drop is the degradation of data older than 10 years into the SPECULATIVE category, mainly in Zimbabwe where very few new estimates were available from later than 2001. The other major reason is the reduction in area surveyed in Botswana.  A number of new populations and new guesses were added to the database, adding almost 16,000 to the DEFINITE category.

87% of the DEFINITE plus PROBABLE estimates were obtained through systematic counts, down from 91% in 2007, indicating a worrying decline in overall data quality.  The CITES MIKE programme has published survey standards for both dung counts and aerial counts (updated in 2013), and the AfESG encourages the use of these standards for both conducting counts and reporting their results.

Range data

Only small adjustments were made to the range map, and a concerted effort to update the range map will be made for the 2012 final update later this year.

Conservation action plans and strategies

Subregional and national elephant action plans and strategies are further elaborated in the relevant sections of the current update.  At the continental level, the African Elephant Action Plan was adopted by African elephant range States in March 2010. Following this, the African Elephant Fund and the African Elephant Fund Steering Committee were established and have already identified a number of projects to receive the first tranche of funding.


The AfESG is very grateful to all data providers, including AfESG members, range State wildlife agencies, NGOs and individual researchers. The provision of up-to-date data helps to ensure that the most recent available data are included in the database. Particular thanks are due to the Data Review Working Group of the AfESG, namely: Julian Blanc, Colin Craig, Holly Dublin, Chris Thouless, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and John Hart. A number of donors and partners have assisted in the development of the AAED, and in the preparation of this update: CITES, CITES MIKE, Solertium, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the European Commission, Tusk Trust and Save the Elephants.

1 IQI: Information Quality Index: This index quantifies overall data quality at the regional level based on the precision of estimates and the proportion of assessed elephant range (i.e. range for which estimates are available). The IQI ranges from zero (no reliable information) to one (perfect information).

2 PFS: Priority for Future Surveys, ranked from 1 to 5 (highest to lowest). Based on the precision of estimates and the proportion of national range accounted for by the site in question, PFS is a measure of the importance and urgency for future population surveys. All areas of unassessed range have a priority of 1. See Introduction for details on how the PFS is derived.

Note that totals for the Definite, Probable, and Possible categories are derived by pooling the variances of individual estimates, as described at As a result, totals do not necessarily match the simple sum of the entries within a given category.