Concern about the survival of the African elephant is hardly new. In 77 A.D., Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder pondered its potential extinction. By the European Middle Ages, his prediction seemed to be coming true: Thanks to the demand for ivory, the elephant, which had once flourished up to the Mediterranean coast, became extinct in northern Africa.
During the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries, overhunting severely depleted elephant herds in other parts of Africa. West Africa was left with only "tiny scattered fragments in this part of the continent," says a 1990 account by the African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group. In the late 19th century, the British explorer Joseph Thomson predicted elephants would be extinct in 20 years.
But the dire predictions did not come true, and Africa's elephants recovered by the mid 20th century, the result of the new laws to control their killing, the establishment of protected areas and a drop in the price of ivory following World War I. But in the early 1970s,however, poaching resumed with a vengeance in response to a revived ivory trade. Elephant authority Iain Douglas-Hamilton estimated that the number of elephants fell from between 1.3 million and 3 million animals in 1979 to 760,000 in 1987. Today, the best estimate places the number between 550,000 and 600,000.
Yet no one is exactly sure just how many there are. Counting them is still such an inexact science that the African Elephant Database breaks the numbers down into categories of "definite," "probable," "possible," and "speculative." In 1995, the last year continent-wide figures were available, the numbers of elephants in each of these categories were 286,234; 101,297; 155,944; and 36,057 respectively.
Elephants are counted in various ways; through aerial surveys to obtain either sample or total counts, ground counts and dung counts. But the topography of Africa and the nomadic nature of elephants can skew a count. Elephants that migrate in and out of parks or across national borders, for example, may be counted twice, or not at all. Forest elephants are impossible to see from a plane; counts from forested areas of Central Africa, home to about 36 percent of Africa's elephants, are the most imprecise.
In an era when the behavior of elephant populations as well as the issue of how to manage them remain subjects of heated debate, it's clear that accurate numbers do count but still evade the experts.