8 May 2024

Buzzword Species: Defining Ecological and Conservation Terminology in the Context of Elephants

Endangered Species

Definition: A species which is facing a very high risk of extinction in the near future.

In the context of wildlife conservation, perhaps the most widely known designation is that of endangered species. Though at a rudimentary level it is easily understood, “endangered” is often misused. Classifying a species as endangered requires specialised assessment and evaluation against standardised criteria. Additionally, numerous organisations and individuals utilise differing definitions, criteria, and subcategories of endangered status, meaning that identical data on a single species may result in that species being classified as “endangered,” “critically endangered,” “threatened,” or “vulnerable,” depending on the classification system used.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is regarded as a crucial indicator of a species’ risk of extinction. The IUCN uses standardised criteria (including population size factors, geographic range, and a quantitative analysis of the probability of extinction) to evaluate and classify species into categories based on the severity of their current global extinction risk. The majority of the IUCN Red List categories can be grouped into three broad categories: Lower Risk, Threatened, and Extinct. Within the Threatened category, there are three subcategories into which a species may be classified. In order of severity, these are: Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), and Critically Endangered (CR), with animals in these categories presently facing a “high,” “very high,” and “extremely high” risk of extinction in the wild, respectively.

Thus, we can define an ‘endangered’ species as any species which is very likely to become extinct in the wild in the near future. Furthermore, a ‘critically endangered’ species can be defined as one which is considered to be facing an extremely high and imminent risk of extinction in the wild. It should be noted that, somewhat confusingly, in the United States, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) categorises a ‘Threatened’ species as one which is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future…”

Are Elephants Endangered?

The IUCN Red List has assessed the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) as an endangered species, noting specifically a marked “continuing decline in area, extent, and/or quality of habitat” as a cause of wild elephant population decline, and a major threat to the survival of the species. The African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is also currently classified as an endangered species according to the IUCN Red List, while in 2020 the African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) received an assessment of Critically Endangered (CR).

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) species list uses the same classifications for the elephant species, but further details the extinction risk status of Asian elephant subspecies. Of the three definitively classified Asian elephant subspecies, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Sumatran, the former two remain classified as Endangered (EN), as does the Bornean elephant, when assessed independently. The Sumatran subspecies, however, was reclassified to Critically Endangered (CR) in 2012, as a result of a significant population loss – up to 80% – in a single generation (approximately 25 years). This tragic decline in numbers of wild Sumatran elephants has been attributed to human-elephant conflict and devastating deforestation within the species’ habitat – some estimates claim that up to 70% of the habitat of the Sumatran elephant was destroyed within one generation, with much of the rest heavily fragmented.

Priority Species

Definition: A threatened or endangered species with unique or significant value to one or more ecosystems, communities, or cultures, possibly exploited for commercial gain and/or emblematic of broader conservation issues.

The term “priority species” has a number of broad definitions which are often unrelated and not always complementary. A priority species may simply refer to a species “requiring protective measures and/or management guidelines to ensure their persistence at genetically viable population levels.” This description is usually used as a legal definition in the U.S., and as such, if used as a classification tool, it would most likely result in a list comprised of species designated as endangered or threatened by a recognised international body or national law. Some priority species may also be legally classified as protected species, meaning that it is illegal to capture, kill, injure, or disturb any member of that species.

Other definitional guidelines are less rigid in scope. These include species “of principal importance for the purpose of maintaining biodiversity” and “endangered species whose survival cannot be guaranteed by conserving their habitat alone.” The WWF states that conservation efforts should be prioritised towards species which are especially important, either to their ecosystem, or to humans, based on one or more of the following criteria:

  • Species forming a key element of the food chain.
  • Species which help the stability or regeneration of habitats.
  • Species demonstrating broader conservation needs.
  • Species important for the health and livelihoods of local communities.
  • Species exploited commercially.
  • Species that are important cultural icons.

Conservation efforts which focus on the protection of priority species often extend to the conservation of these species’ critical habitats, referred to as “priority habitats.” Priority habitat can be defined as “a habitat type with unique or significant value to one or more species.” By extrapolating from this simple definition, and adding key details, it can be argued that a universal definition of a priority species may be attained, as follows: A threatened or endangered species with unique or significant value to one or more ecosystems, communities, or cultures, possibly exploited for commercial gain and/or emblematic of broader conservation issues.

Are Elephants a Priority Species?

Elephants may be considered a priority species for a number of reasons. As outlined previously, elephants are endangered, and since they require large amounts of space to meet their ecological needs, they have a particular susceptibility to population decline as a result of habitat destruction and fragmentation. The majority of such habitat loss is caused by humans, and thus, protective measures, management guidelines, and legal frameworks are necessary in order to effectively protect elephants. However, even if elephant habitats were preserved successfully, or even partially regenerated, their survival would still be threatened by many other factors, including human-elephant conflict, poaching, and climate change.

Furthermore, despite being herbivores whose large size almost invariably protects them from natural predation, elephants play a vital supporting role in food chain maintenance. Sometimes described as “ecosystem engineers,” the behaviours exhibited by elephants are extremely important for the promotion and preservation of biodiversity in their habitats, and the presence of elephants in an area is closely connected to the regeneration and stability of the local ecosystem.

Elephants also occupy a position of unique importance to the human population of their native habitats. Historically, humans in many parts of the world relied on elephants for transport, construction, and other manual labour tasks which allowed individuals, and entire societies, to prosper. Nowadays, elephant tourism provides jobs and livelihoods for many people throughout both Africa and Asia, and some communities are almost wholly reliant on earnings generated either directly from elephant tourism, or indirectly, such as income from crops grown specifically to feed elephants. Elephants are also highly significant cultural and religious icons in many places, including Thailand, where they have been revered for millennia. [You can read articles about the cultural and religious significance of elephants in Thailand on the excellent blog page of our partner, The Care Project Foundation.] Lastly, wild elephants are, sadly, exploited for commercial purposes through poaching, particularly, though not exclusively, for ivory. Unsurprisingly, WWF lists elephants as among the 10 priority species clusters it considers in need of concentrated conservation efforts.

Charismatic Species

Definition: A popular, charismatic species that serves as a symbol or rallying point to stimulate conservation awareness and action.

The term…

Are Elephants a Charismatic Species?


Flagship Species

Definition: A species chosen to raise support for biodiversity conservation in a given place or social context.

The term…

Are Elephants a Flagship Species?


Indicator Species

Definition: A

The term…

Are Elephants an Indicator Species?


Umbrella Species

Definition: A species whose conservation is expected to indirectly protect a large number of naturally co-occuring species within its habitat.

The term…

Are Elephants an Umbrella Species?


Keystone Species

Definition: A species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically.

The term…

Are Elephants a Keystone Species?



City of Alwaco, WA. (2017). Shoreline Master Program.

Endangered Species Conservation Act. Public Law 205, U.S. Statutes at Large 87 (1973): 884-903.

Gobush, K.S., Edwards, C.T.T, Maisels, F., Wittemyer, G., Balfour, D. & Taylor, R.D. (2021). Loxodonta cyclotis (errata version published in 2021). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T181007989A204404464.

Gobush, K.S., Edwards, C.T.T, Balfour, D., Wittemyer, G., Maisels, F. & Taylor, R.D. (2022). Loxodonta africana (amended version of 2021 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T181008073A223031019.

IUCN. (2022). The IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesVersion 2022-2.

Williams, C., Tiwari, S.K., Goswami, V.R., de Silva, S., Kumar, A., Baskaran, N., Yoganand, K. & Menon, V. (2020). Elephas maximusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T7140A45818198.

World Wildlife Fund. (N.D.). Species Directory.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature. (N.D.). Priority Species.