The largest land mammal on Earth, elephants embody the African landscape. Using seasonal cues and their long-term memories, these hulking creatures travel vast distances in close-knit herds to find water and food throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Highly intelligent and social animals, they learn most of their behaviors through the leadership of their older relatives, communicating with each other even miles away.

Tragically though, for the second time in the last century, elephants in Africa are being slaughtered for their ivory tusks at rates that are causing severe population declines across the continent. The illicit trade in ivory continues to rise due to flaws in trade regulations and lack of enforcement ability, while anti-poaching efforts are inadequate. On top of this, loss of habitat, human-elephant conflict, and political instability provide significant long-term challenges to their survival.


Importantly, despite compelling genetic research concluding that two species of African elephants exist — forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) — Africa's two elephant species are still being managed as one. Forest and savannah elephants occupy different ecological niches and face different threats and should be managed in accordance with these differences.

The United States plays a crucial role in elephant conservation. Elephants are currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, which allows for some limited trade in ivory and elephant parts. The Fish and Wildlife Service took a strong stand against elephant poaching when it issued the Director's Order to combat wildlife trafficking in 2014 that tightened ivory import regulations and again in 2015 when it proposed new rules to clamp down on ivory sales within the United States, but elephants need more. That's why the Center petitioned to have elephants reclassified as two species and uplisted to the more protective “endangered” status. In 2016, in response to our petition, the Service announced that Africa's elephants may qualify for “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act and may warrant reclassification as two separate species. When the Service hadn't moved forward with upgraded protections or reclassification, however, in November 2016 we filed a notice of intent to sue the Service, with unprecedented poaching continuing and habitat loss accelerating.   

A year later the Trump administration formally reversed an Obama-era ban on importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. Within a week we sued the administration for letting U.S. hunters import elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe. After Center action, in 2021 New York upheld a state ban on ivory and rhino horn sales; we're still fighting hard against all trophy hunting.

Finally, elephants were officially recognized as two distinct species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2021, when it released its annoucement that elephants in Africa face a serious risk of extinction. This should be a signal to the United States and the international community to devote major resources to curbing ivory poaching and trafficking, closing remaining domestic ivory markets, and saving these marvelous, irreplaceable engineers of the forest and savanna from extinction.

Check out our press releases to learn more about the Center's actions for African elephants.

Savannah elephants photo courtesy Flickr/Steve Garvie; "Take Action" gray wolf image by Per Herald Olsen/NTNU