The CITES’ (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species on Wild Fauna and Flora) analysis suggests that 20,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa and 121 in Asia during the last year. The estimated poaching rate remains at an unsustainably high level, as it exceeds natural population growth rates of usually no more than 5%. African elephant numbers are down to about 500,000 today, from one million in the 1980s, and in Asia there are about 70,000 left.
African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins, and can be identified by their larger ears and weighing up to eight tons. Only some Asian male elephants have tusks. All African elephants, including females, have tusks. They are either left or right-tusked, and the one they use more is usually smaller due of wear and tear.
An elephant’s trunk is actually a long nose used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and also for grabbing things, especially a potential meal. The trunk alone contains about 100,000 different muscles. African elephants have two fingerlike features on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. Asian elephants have one. The Asian elephant has four toes on the hind foot and five on the forefoot, while the African elephant has three on the hind foot and five on the forefoot.
Led by a matriarch, elephants are organized into complex social structures of females and calves, while male elephants tend to live in isolation. A single calf is born to a female once every 4-5 years and has a gestation period of 22 months, the longest of any mammal. These calves stay with their mothers for years and are also cared for by other females in the group.
The two species of elephants need extensive land to survive. Roaming in herds, they eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of food in a single day. These hungry animals do not sleep much, and they roam over great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food that they require to sustain their massive bodies.
In 1989, CITES banned the international trade in ivory. However, there is still some thriving but unregulated domestic ivory markets in a number of countries, which fuel an illegal international trade. Poaching to meet growing demand from affluent Asian countries is driving up the rate of poaching. In some countries, political unrest contributes to poaching.
Elephants are also losing their habitats and ancient migratory routes, due to expanding human settlements, plantation development and the construction of infrastructure such as roads, canals and pipelines. As a result, the level of human-elephant conflict rises as elephants are forced to compete for resources.
Read more here: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/elephant
Sources: National Geographic, Save the Elephants, World Wildlife Fund