Mammals That Have Lost the Most Habitat

Large mammals have disappeared from millions of square miles in North America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

In the last 500 years, caribou, elephants, grizzly bears and cheetahs, among other animals, have experienced massive reductions in the extent of their natural range.

Elk (also known as red deer) have endured the largest range contraction of all, totalling 3.7 million square kilometres (1.43 million square miles) since the year 1500 AD. Another ten large mammals have also lost over one million square kilometres each.

The area occupied by wildlife in 1500 AD was investigated by scientists who pulled together information from hundreds of sources, including historical accounts. They then matched the historical data with current range maps to calculate the area that each species has lost in the last five hundred years.

The table below summarizes the scientific findings, measured in square miles. It's followed with another table containing more detailed information in square kilometres. Both these tables are for the twelve large mammals that have vacated the most land area in the last 500 years.

Loss of range by mammals since 1500 AD.
Common Name Area Gone From (square miles)
Elk (red deer) 1,430,000
Cheetah 1,070,000
Lion 884,000
African elephant 734,000
Giraffe 710,000
African wild dog 695,000
Leopard 564,000
Horse 517,000
Onager 506,000
Caribou 432,000
Grizzly (brown) bear 429,000
Black rhinoceros 379,000
Large mammals undergoing the biggest losses of occupied habitat. Historic range is the area the animal lived in as of the year AD 1500. Loss represents the area that the species has stopped inhabiting during the last five centuries. All numbers are in thousands of square kilometres.
Common Name Scientific Name Historic Range (1000 km²) Current Range (1000 km²) Range Lost (1000 km²)
Elk (red deer) Cervus elaphus 5,200 1,500 3,700
Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus 3,500 730 2,770
Lion Panthera leo 2,690 400 2,290
African elephant Loxodonta africana 2,520 620 1,900
Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis 2,100 260 1,840
African wild dog Lycaon pictus 1,890 90 1,800
Leopard Panthera pardus 4,180 2,720 1,460
Horse Equus caballus 1,350 0.3 1,340
Onager Equus hemionus 1,350 40 1,310
Caribou Rangifer tarandus 2,930 1,810 1,120
Grizzly (brown) bear Ursus arctos 3,480 2,370 1,110
Black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis 1,040 58 982

These are not the only vast disappearances of large mammals from the landscape. Others that used to be widespread include bison, cougars and black bears in North America, and jaguars in South America. Asia has had massive losses in the area occupied elephants and tigers. Also gone from large regions of northern Africa are scimitar-horned oryx, barbary sheep and addax. Each of these animals has vanished from more than 500,000 square kilometres of range since 1500 AD.


John C. Morrison, Wes Sechrest, Eric Dinerstein, David S. Wilcove and John F. Lamoreux. 2007. Persistence of Large Mammal Faunas as Indicators of Global Human Impacts. Journal of Mammalogy. 88(6): 1363-1380.

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