The destruction of the African elephant does far more harm than the reduction of a species to a few thousand protected in parks and zoos. It means the end of a major force that shapes the ecology of forests and the savanna woodlands. While the whole elephant population throughout Africa is declining, some countries in southern Africa have the opposite problem: too many elephants. The future of the elephant in Africa is a complex issue that will need to resolve overpopulation in some areas and underpopulation in others.
African elephants are found in the forests, grasslands, marshes, scrub, and semi-desert areas of sub-Saharan Africa. There is a distinct sub-species, the forest elephant, found in the tropical forests of central Africa. In an elephant's constant search for around 140 kg of vegetation every day, it kills small trees and underbush and pulls branches off big trees as high as its trunk will reach. This creates open spaces in both deep forest and in the woodlands. This patchwork of vegetation in various stages of regeneration, in turn creates a greater variety of forage that attracts a greater variety of other vegetarians than would otherwise be the case.
Half the world's elephants were killed by poachers in a single decade. As recently as the 1930's there were 10 million African elephants. In 1980 there were 1.2 million; in 2000 an estimated 500,000. In the 1980s alone the kill rate reached 200 a day. Poaching and loss of habitat has reduced this to 650,000 in 1989. At the present rate of killing, some 70,000 a year, there will be no African elephants at the turn of the century.
In 1997, eight years after the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species put the African elephant on its "most endangered" list and successfully banned worldwide commercial trade in ivory, convention members amended that pact to allow three Southern African to begin selling less than half their stockpiles of ivory to Japan. The three, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, having large elephant populations and solid conservation records, needed also the millions of dollars that their stockpiled tons of ivory would bring to them. Several countries that supported the ban in 1989 voted this time to carve out an exception. That dangerously reopened what has always been the world's most insatiable ivory market, Japan, and provided a powerful incentive for poachers throughout Africa to resume the killing in the hope that their illegal ivory could safely be commingled with the legal ivory from the three African countries.