A century ago, there were more elephants in Africa than there were people in New York City. Now there are probably more people in Anchorage than elephants in Africa, with the pachyderm population down by a third just between 2007 and 2014, according to the biggest-ever study of elephant populations. The Great Elephant Census found 352,271 savanna elephants roaming across 18 countries and estimated that the population had dropped by 144,000 in a seven-year period, with poachers slaughtering tens of thousands every year for ivory to sell to the Chinese market, NPR reports. The researchers, whose work is published in PeerJ, warn that the population is dropping by 8% every year as poaching continues and that localized extinction is on the horizon in several countries.
Elephant ecologist Mike Chase is the founder of Elephants Without Borders and the lead scientist on the elephant census, which spent three years trying to count Africa's elephants from the air. "I don't think anybody in the world has seen the number of dead elephants that I've seen over the last two years," Chase tells CNN, describing how poachers have been wiping out entire family herds of elephants, and how areas that once supported thousands of elephants are now home to just tens. "If we can't protect the world's largest land mammal, the prognosis for wildlife conservation is bleak," he says, though there is hope that the census will aid the creation of a master plan for protecting elephants. (US zoos, meanwhile, are letting their elephants die out.)