Hunters Wreaking Havoc on Roaming of African Elephants

African Elephants currently range on a fraction of the land they could as a result of the ivory trade.

Male African elephants congregate along hotspots of social activity on the Boteti River in Botswana. (Connie Allen via AP)

(CN) — African elephants could roam land nearly five times the size of the ranges they currently command were it not for the continued threat of one of their most dangerous predators — humans. 

For nearly as long as elephants have roamed the wilds of Earth, they have had to contend with human hunters looking to exploit them. With the historical record suggesting that elephants were being targeted for their ivory tusks as early as the days of ancient Rome, the ivory trade took off in a big way around the 17th century when the spread of European colonizers sent demand for ivory skyrocketing.

Despite noteworthy efforts around the world to curb the spread of the ivory trade, many African elephants continue to be targeted by human hunters to this day.

Now, new research highlights not just steep toll of the ivory trade on elephants but also how much land could be available to elephants once again should the threats of the ivory trade be removed once and for all.

In a study published Thursday in Current Biology, researchers reveal African elephants currently range on just a fifth of the total land potentially available to them.

What’s more, according to researchers, all of this potential land could be ready for safe elephant habitation almost immediately if the threats of the ivory trade are removed. Researchers report that around 62% of Africa — representing around 11 million square miles of land exceeding the size of Russia — can support elephants. This massive chunk of land even contains some key areas where a peaceful coexistence between humans and elephants could be reached under the right conditions.

Experts hailing from a host of elephant protection organizations and universities say they came to this conclusion after pouring over massive amounts of data on where elephants roam in Africa. The data primarily came from a number of GPS tracking collars on over 200 elephants over 15 years and detailed satellite information that experts were able to use to compile a comprehensive picture of Africa’s current ability to house these threatened creatures.

“We literally looked at every square kilometer of the continent,” Jake Wall, the director of research and conservation at the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We found 62% of those 29.2 million square kilometers is suitable habitat.”

Experts say this exhaustive look into Africa’s landscape left virtually no stone unturned to identify where elephants could safely roam. They looked at available tree cover and vegetation, surface temperatures, human presence and even anticipated weather patterns across the continent to accurately determine what land was suitable for elephant settlement.

While great stretches of the continent cannot support African elephants — such as the Sahara, Danakil, and Kalahari deserts and high African mountaintops — researchers say there are some places that hold particular promise for pachyderms. The forests of Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo boast some of the most elephant friendly ranges in Africa, forests that were once habitat for hundreds of thousands of elephants but today hold less than 10,000.

Researchers also found that the areas currently put aside for elephant habitats are woefully inadequate. Of all the land where elephants current range in Africa, nearly 60% fall outside of the protection zones.

Experts say that moving forward, long-term strategies involving more robust habitat protection and an advancement of polices that support elephant and human coexistence are essential to ensure these impressive creatures have the land and resources they need to recover from centuries of human abuse.

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