5 things you may not know about elephants

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Joe Myers, Writer, Formative Content


  • Elephants are the world’s largest land animal.
  • They play a vital role in supporting ecosystems and biodiversity.
  • But they continue to face threats from poachers and habitat destruction.
  • Conservation efforts are making a difference, though.
  • World Elephant Day, celebrated every 12 August, aims to raise awareness and fight for their future.

Elephants are instantly recognizable, thanks to their distinctive trunks and, of course, their vast size – in fact, they’re the world’s largest land animal.

But, they face a variety of threats, and numbers have declined significantly over the past century.

To raise awareness of these challenges and help them fight for their future, World Elephant Day was created in 2012 and is recognized every 12 August.

“World Elephant Day is a rallying call for people to support organizations that are working to stop the illegal poaching and trade of elephant ivory and other wildlife products, protect wild elephant habitat, and provide sanctuaries and alternative habitats for domestic elephants to live freely,” explains the day’s co-founder Patricia Sims.

Here are five things you might not have known about them – from conservation to biodiversity.

1. Their numbers have fallen dramatically over the past two centuries

Although once a common sight across Africa and Asia, elephant numbers fell dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. The cause? The ivory trade and habitat loss.

While some populations are now stable, that’s far from consistently true. Poaching, habitat destruction and conflict with humans continue to threaten numbers.

The WWF reports that Asian elephant numbers have dropped by at least 50% over the past three generations. Just 40,000-50,000 are left in the wild, resulting in the species being classified as endangered.

The African elephant is also regarded as vulnerable, with around 415,000 left on the continent. An estimated 35,000 African elephants are still killed every year for their tusks, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.

Number of African elephants
African elephant numbers have fallen sharply since the 1500s. Image: Our World in Data

2. Conservation efforts are making a difference

Organizations across the world are working together to tackle some of the major threats elephant populations face.

Successful initiatives include tackling the ivory trade. International commercial trade was banned in 1989 and the world’s largest ivory market, China, announced in 2016 that all ivory sales within the country would be banned.

Other projects work to introduce protected areas, in order to prevent habitat destruction and keep elephants safe from poaching. For example, the KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi) Transfrontier Conservation effort has witnessed strong population growth over the past 50 years.

Preventing human-elephant conflict is also important, with one project in Kenya even using beekeeping to help. The WWF explains that poverty and lack of incentives can promote negative attitudes towards conservation efforts. But, the hives provide an income to local communities, with studies showing that integrating beekeeping into elephant conservation leads to reduced conflict in the long run.

3. Elephants have a vital role to play in shaping ecosystems

And that matters because elephants are vital for supporting ecosystems, and are considered a keystone species for the role they play. They trample forests and dense grasslands, supporting the growth of smaller species.

They also travel vast distances, dispersing seeds in their dung, supporting vegetation growth. Indeed, some research suggests that elephants could disperse seeds up to 65km, which helps to maintain the genetic diversity of many tree species and prevent local inbreeding.

“The implication is that elephants are absolutely critical to the integrity of these African savanna ecosystems,” Greg Adler, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, said in response to the 2017 research. Nature

What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

Biodiversity loss and climate change are occurring at unprecedented rates, threatening humanity’s very survival. Nature is in crisis, but there is hope. Investing in nature can not only increase our resilience to socioeconomic and environmental shocks, but it can help societies thrive.

There is strong recognition within the Forum that the future must be net-zero and nature-positive. The Nature Action Agenda initiative, within the Platform for Accelerating Nature-based Solutions, is an inclusive, multistakeholder movement catalysing economic action to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

Dynamic and flourishing natural ecosystems are the foundation for human wellbeing and prosperity. The Future of Nature and Business report found that nature-positive transitions in key sectors are good for the economy and could generate up to $10.1 trillion in annual business value and create 395 million jobs by 2030.

To support these transitions, the Platform for Accelerating Nature-based Solutions has convened a community of Champions for Nature promoting the sustainable management of the planet for the good of the economy and society. The Nature Action Agenda also recently launched the 100 Million Farmers initiative, which will drive the transition of the food and agriculture system towards a regenerative model, as well as the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative to create an urban development model that is in harmony with nature.

Get in touch if you would like to collaborate on these efforts or join one of our communities.

4. They’ve got big appetites

They spend up to three-quarters of their day eating and consume more than 100kg of plant matter every day.

Both Asian and African elephants typically eat a diet of grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves and small stems. They’re also never far from water as they can drink nearly 200 litres of water a day.

But, their habitats are shrinking, putting them more frequently in competition with humans for resources. https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/5Gb9guw45jt8crJGevLUy7

5. More than 150,000 people have recently been evacuated in China because of a migrating herd

A 14-strong herd of Asian elephants has recently been roaming in southwest China.

They left their original home in a nature reserve around 17 months ago and have travelled more than 500km since – although now look to be on the way home.

On their way, they’ve caused more than $1.07m in damage and forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents in Yunnan Province, to prevent contact between the two groups.

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