Recognising elephants as separate species may save forest elephants – and Africa’s forests

Apr 15, 2021 | Commentary

By Rosie Awori

Deep in the dense forests of Central and West Africa, members of a lesser-known African elephant species slowly make their way through their jungle habitat eating and quietly carrying on with their lives. Unknown to them, their identity has been a subject of disagreement for the past 20 or more years. 

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) only recognised forest elephants as a distinct species as late as 2008; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has yet to do so. But just last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) finally agreed officially with most African scientists and their international colleagues that forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are genetically distinct from savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana).

Yet, the physical differences between the two species have been known by local forest communities for millennia. Forest elephants are noticeably smaller in size with bulls only reaching a maximum of 2.5 metres compared to a shoulder height of up to 4 metres for savanna elephant bulls. Forest elephants have shorter and straighter tusks. The smaller size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from ivory poachers. Forest elephant tusks are denser with distinctive pinkish hue, sometimes known as ‘pink ivory’, that has made them particularly valuable to consumers.

With forest elephants and the more numerous and, in some countries, better-protected savanna elephants previously treated as one species, they had been listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘vulnerable’. However, poaching for their tusks, increased incidences of human-wildlife conflict, climate change, and habitat loss have startingly accelerated the demise of both species. Across Africa, poaching reached its peak in 2011, when over 30,000 elephants were killed every year.  Of these, forest elephants have been hit particularly hard with population numbers falling by 86% in the past three decades. 

With the separation of species, the IUCN experts have accordingly updated their Red List classification. Savanna elephants  are now listed as ‘endangered’ while forest elephants are listed as ‘critically endangered’. And “critically endangered,” says Ben Okita, Co-Chair of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) “means they are a step away from extinction.” 

The looming extinction of forest elephants is likely to have a devastating effect on not only the local economies of the countries in the Congo Basin (Gabon, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic) and parts of West Africa (Ivory Coast, Liberia and Ghana) that depend on the forest for their livelihoods, but also on biodiversity and the overall health of forests. 

Forest elephants are crucial to keeping the forests thriving. They feed on fruits whose seeds are later shed in their dung. This results in the dispersal and growth of a variety of tree species.  In Central Africa, there are some fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal; they have evolved together with forest elephants who provide the only way to spread their seeds. These trees line the forest elephant paths. If the elephants disappear, the paths – and trees – will disappear too. Without the trees, rainfall patterns are disrupted, which in turn affects food security for the human inhabitants of the forests. The potential for a complete collapse in forest biodiversity and human well-being is thus teetering on the edge.

And it gets worse. Poaching for their tusks is not the only threat for forest elephants. Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, Oceans, Environment and Climate Change, Professor Lee White wrote in The Guardian recently that “the biggest threat to forests elephants is not poaching but the climate emergency.” He explained that due to climate change, 80% of the fruit-producing trees in the forests have been lost. Without fruits, which form a bulk of forest elephant diet, the elephants are also now a lot thinner than they were in the 1980s. This is driving elephants out of the forests in search of food, thus increasing the incidences of human conflict, which then results in more elephant deaths.

We can only speculate on what could have happened had we taken the distinction and plight of the forest elephant more seriously sooner. In the fifteen years following 2006 when ivory poachers first began entering the forests, the Democratic Republic of the Congo lost 95% of its elephants and Cameroon lost 90%.

The way Ben Okita sees it, a multi-pronged approach must be immediately employed to prevent forest elephants from extinction. 

“We need measures that target conservation of the habitats. We also need to undertake more surveys and monitoring of the numbers of the elephants in order to plan the landscape in which these animals exist,” he said. He also notes the importance of preserving a key stronghold of forest elephants. This is the transboundary TRIDOM region, which gets its name from the first initial of protected areas of three countries in the Congo Basin (Dja in Cameroon, Odzala in Republic of Congo, and Minkébé in Gabon). These three countries, he explains, must cooperate in order to best protect the elephants, the forests, their overall biodiversity and the human communities that depend on the forest for their survival. 

Ultimately, as Lee White wrote: “The ‘critically endangered’ label will hopefully mean that the international community takes the plight of the forest elephant all the more seriously”.

Failure to do so will be to the peril, not just of the elephants, but to all life in the African forests.

Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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