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Status Check for African Elephants

Vulnerable here, endangered there, threatened over yonder. What do all these classification systems mean for the future of our largest living land animals?

Paul Tessier/Stocksy

Are African elephants endangered? Not everywhere—and that’s a problem.

The idea of endangered species appears straightforward: A species is either at grave risk of extinction, or it is not. Endangerment, however, is often a determination that involves a tricky mixture of science and politics.

For starters, while you’ve likely heard people refer to “the endangered species list,” there isn’t just one list. What’s more, the categories across the lists may be identical, but they don’t necessarily comprise the same wildlife species. 

African elephants are a good example. According to the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Loxodonta africana is not endangered. Rather, the animal is “vulnerable”―one category better off.

The difference between “endangered” and “vulnerable” on the Red List is somewhat subtle, but it mostly has to do with a species’ odds of survival. Endangered species are likely to go extinct very soon, while vulnerable species have a lower risk of disappearing, giving us a better chance to intervene and save them. (The full technical explanation states that over the next decade or three generations—whichever is longer—endangered species are likely to lose half their populations, whereas threatened species might take a hit closer to 10 percent.)

The IUCN moved African elephants from endangered to vulnerable status in 2004, in part because the animals are relatively numerous, with some 415,000 African elephants roaming the continent, and the population is increasing in some areas. However, the elephant poaching crisis started a few years later, and since then, populations have plummeted. Scientists now predict that if current poaching rates continue, African forest elephants (the rarer of the continent’s two elephant subspecies) could be extinct within a decade. And African savanna elephants aren’t far behind, having declined by 30 percent in the past seven years.

The IUCN is a scientific body. Committees of eminent experts crunch data and attempt to put the finest possible point on a species’ risk of extinction. While the Red List is a very widely cited authority, it serves principally to educate the public and influence policy on behalf of species conservation. And the success of the conservation measures that IUCN members vote on every four years at the World Conservation Congress—such as their recent motion to close domestic ivory markets—largely depend on their willingness to implement them. In other words, the IUCN does not in itself have any mandatory, legal power—if the organization declared African elephants endangered tomorrow, no protective measures would spring automatically into effect.

Contrast this with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which hosts another prominent international endangered species list. When CITES confers conservation status on a species, it restricts the international trade of that creature. CITES undertakes a much more political process than the IUCN, because countries—not conservationists—vote on the designation of species.

Nowhere has that process been more controversial than with elephants.

Across much of the continent, African elephants are classified under CITES Appendix I, which is the highest level of protection offered by the convention. However, elephants in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa fall into Appendix II, which is reserved for species “not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled.”

This confusing distinction was the subject of immense tension at the last CITES meeting this fall in Johannesburg, where many countries argued in vain that all African elephants should be moved to Appendix I. “Elephants do not have passports,” said a delegate from Cote D’Ivoire, a country that knows how quickly elephant populations can dwindle. Delegates from some southern African countries, however, argued in favor of resuming the ivory trade.

The controversy at CITES leads us to another endangered species list that’s currently fostering debate. The United States has its own classification system, established under the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and managed largely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1978, it deemed African elephants “threatened.” Now, NRDC and other groups are urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to “up-list” elephants to endangered status.

“Designating African elephants as ‘endangered’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act presents another significant step the U.S. can take in saving this magnificent creature,” says Elly Pepper, deputy director of wildlife trade for NRDC. “Namely, this designation would prevent them from becoming more endangered by reducing the importation of sport-hunted elephants into the U.S. Since our country is one of the leading importers of African elephant specimens—including hunting trophies—this would be a big deal.”

This upgrading of protective status would not prevent Americans from killing elephants abroad. It would, however, make it more difficult for trophy hunters to bring their elephants back home. Right now, a hunter who wishes to bring an elephant trophy into the United States must “prove” that the killing enhanced the species’ survival. The Fish and Wildlife Service makes this determination by looking at various factors including whether the elephant came from a country where the sport-hunting program is “science based” and whether the revenue generated benefits the animals’ conservation and management. Our government doesn’t always get this right.

If elephants were considered endangered in the United States, each trophy hunter’s request would be open to public notice and comment. Any citizen or advocacy group could search for importation applications in the Federal Register, then raise an opposition—or challenge the government on any misguided decisions to permit an import.

So, are African elephants endangered? In some places—but not enough places. By calling on the Obama administration to help classify African elephants as endangered, we will move one step closer to shutting down the ivory trade in the United States forever. That’s something everyone should agree on. 

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