Abstract Current taxonomy recognizes three extant species of elephants (Elephantidae), the African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, the African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis and the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. As large herbivores and an excellent keystone species, elephants can cause positive and/or negative impacts on their surrounding environments and these impacts can vary in both temporal and spatial scales. The positive impacts include: improved seed dispersal and germination; creating forest gaps and maintaining community diversity; and enriching food resources and habitat for other animals. The negative impacts include: causing biodiversity loss by reducing locally vulnerable species, and causing habitat degradation by transforming local plant communities from woodlands to shrub lands or grass lands. Population over-abundance by confinement to habitat islands due to habitat loss is mainly responsible for the negative impacts caused by elephants. Simply culling off elephants would not be an effective mitigation strategy to offset their negative impacts and is strongly discouraged. Rigorous scientific information on effective ways to evaluate and alleviate the negative impact of elephants and to guide proper management plans still is lacking. Local environmental conditions and site-specific objectives should be considered when developing management actions to curb the negative impact of elephants on woody vegetation. All elephant species, including African bush elephant, African forest elephant and Asian elephants, are currently facing severe population declines and habit loss. In order to save them from extinction, it is imperative to conduct more comprehensive research to better understand the relationship between elephants and the ecosystems in which they live.