Once 5 - 10 million elephants roamed across Africa - in 1979 there were 1.3 million, and in 1989 these numbers had dropped to 600 000. This large drop in numbers during the eighties was largely due to poaching. At the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting of October ’89 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the African elephant was placed on Appendix I of CITES, and a world-wide trading ban on ivory and other elephant products was initiated. Appendix I means a species is threatened with extinction and can be traded only if permits are obtained by the importers and exporters, and cannot be traded for primarily commercial purposes.
There has been pressure from various countries to lift the ban over the years, but at the CITES meetings of ’92 and ’94 the ban remained in effect. A large part of the world ivory trade has collapsed, and there is now a very limited market.
New pressures and problems are now facing elephant populations, such as the increased demand for land, and a change in land-use patterns due to human overpopulation and desertification. In some areas elephant populations have stabilized and now pose a threat to certain habitats. This has led to the controversial issue of elephant culling.
As pressures from increased land use intensify, combined with the on-going threat of poaching, a major concern is the affect on elephant family groups and social structure: old elephants with big tusks are becoming a rarity, and many old matriarchs on which the family groups depend have died. Elephant groups are now led by younger, less experienced animals who may not know where to go and how to survive when food and water are scarce, and are also more likely to encounter problems with people.