95% of the world's wild elephant population has been killed in the last 100 years, by poachers wielding guns, spears, and poison. 

Photo by Johan Swanepoel/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Johan Swanepoel/iStock / Getty Images

The Poaching Crisis

In 1900, there were an estimated three million African elephants and 100,000 Asian elephants in the wild. Now, there are approximately 415,000 wild African elephants and between 40,000 and 50,000 wild Asian elephants remaining. The massive demand for ivory across Asia has pushed poachers to murder elephants across Africa, sometimes hacking off their tusks while they are still alive. The technology has become more and more advanced; often, poachers in helicopters herd panicked elephants and shoot them with high-powered rifles. Then people on the ground cut off their faces and tusks with axes. It's unimaginably brutal. From 2011 to 2014 alone, 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers. 

  Seized elephant tusks in Cameroon; June, 2015. Source: cameroonweb.com

Seized elephant tusks in Cameroon; June, 2015. Source: cameroonweb.com

If poaching is not reduced dramatically,  African elephants could be extinct in a decade.

 African elephant herd. Source: Nation of Change

African elephant herd. Source: Nation of Change

On Elephants

Elephants are one of the most intelligent species on earth (in fact, they have the largest brains of any land animal, and three times as many neurons as humans). They retain memories that span years and hold extremely close family bonds, lead by matriarchs (generally the oldest and largest female). They're socially complex in similar ways to humans; some are introverted, others are extroverted, some are leaders while others prefer to follow. They are playful and they have a sense of humor. They exhibit empathy and altruism, and they mourn their dead—and not just elephants they knew. Elephant herds are considered one of the most loyal societies of any animal; females won't leave their herd unless they die or are captured by humans.

Communication is incredibly important to elephants, and they have a variety of sophisticated methods for conveying messages to others near and far. They're loud: their trunks are capable of producing 110-decibel sounds that can be heard from miles away. Even more remarkably, elephants' common behaviors (like snorting, running, etc.) make specific "seismic signatures," which other elephants can detect by picking up vibrations in the earth through their feet and bones. Elephants have been observed freezing, mid-stride, to detect these long-distance messages. This form of communication allows them to pick up on threats, like predators and incoming weather. It also allows researchers to better monitor elephants for anti-poaching efforts.

Elephants also use several types of rumbles, grunts, screams, and trumpets, which—along with specific ear waves, trunk bounces, and other movements—can communicate vital information to the herd. To learn more about their specific gestures, visit the Elephant Gestures Database, a detailed catalog of different elephant behaviors and their meanings.

Elephants mourning their matriarch. Source: National Geographic

Elephants demonstrate empathy. Source: The New York Times

In Kruger National Park, South Africa, a herd of elephants helps a collapsed calf. Source: Kruger Sightings

Elephants have no natural predators. Their only predators are humans.

Legal Context for the Ivory Trade

Many countries have taken legal steps to ban the ivory trade. In December 2017, China—which was the world's largest market for illegal ivory—introduced a landmark ivory ban, which involved closing 172 ivory-carving factories and shops. So far, it has prompted a 65% decline in the cost of raw ivory, though the real indicator of success will be whether the government is able to successfully enforce it—no easy task, given the power of the ivory industry. In January 2018, Hong Kong's legislature voted to ban all ivory sales—including antique ivory—by 2021. Other countries in Asia are also strengthening, or considering strengthening, their laws on ivory sales, including Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Taiwan. And in April 2018, Britain announced one of the world's strictest ivory bans in an attempt to curb the ivory trade in Europe (the Environmental Investigation Agency reported  "over 250 seizures of more than 12 tonnes of ivory in 16 European countries between January 2000 and October 2017"). Advocates hope that the European Union (E.U.) will be next in taking steps to stop the ivory trade. Currently, ivory cannot be legally exported from E.U. member nations, but trade between countries continues. In March 2018, more than 30 African nations—and over a million people around the world—demanded that the E.U. stop its ivory trade.

Unfortunately, under the Trump Administration, the U.S. has turned its back on elephants. In March 2018, Trump quietly lifted an Obama-era ban on elephant trophy imports—elephant parts—despite publicly claiming to feel otherwise for months. Over 1.5 million people have voiced their opposition to the ban.  

What You Can Do

There are a number of incredible organizations fighting to save elephants from poaching deaths, and all could use your help. Here are a few of our favorites:

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) in Kenya provides a haven for orphaned elephants and rhinos. They run the Orphan's Project, which allows donors to foster (for $50 a year) orphaned baby rhinos and elephants. Animals are rehabilitated at DSWT's orphanage, and when possible, reintegrated into the wild herds of Tsavo. They also run an anti-poaching project in Tsavo National Park, whose teams work to destroy snares and other poaching devices, and patrol areas where poachers hunt for elephants and rhinos. We like DSWT so much that we donate 15% of the proceeds of our ceramic elephants to them.

Save the Elephants runs the Elephant Crisis Fund, along with the Wildlife Conservation Network, which funds projects that work to stop poaching, thwart trafficking, and end the demand for ivory. 100% of donations to the Elephant Crisis Fund go toward anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts. The organization runs a conservation education program and conducts research to help minimize human-elephant conflict. It also works to count elephants, which in turn helps map safe zones and demonstrates the importance of protected areas.

Space for Giants is run in the United Kingdom and based in Kenya; it works to minimize human-elephant conflict, which "can cause an immediate subsistence crisis resulting in enormous resentment and anger among rural people," which in turn can lead to retaliation killings of wildlife. Its projects include passive and active deterrents like chilli fences and loud horns, and GPS tracking of known crop-invading elephants. When one approaches a farm, farmers receive a text message and can mobilize non-violently to scare the elephant away.