Both African elephant species are now endangered, one critically

For the first time, a major conservation body has recognised the savanna elephant and forest elephant as two separate species—and they’re in dire straits.

By Rachel Nuwer
Published 25 Mar 2021, 20:54 GMT
African elephants, Loxodonta africana, during a thunderstorm.
Photograph by Ronan Donovan

Elephants have long been thought of as either African or Asian. But there are actually two species of African elephant: The savanna elephant is larger, has curving tusks, and roams the open plains of sub-Saharan Africa. The smaller, darker forest elephant, with straight tusks, lives in the equatorial forests of Central and West Africa.

Now, for the first time, scientists have separately evaluated how the two are faring—and the findings are grim.

Savanna elephants are endangered and forest elephants are critically endangered, according to an official assessment released today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for its Red List of Threatened Species, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of extinction risk.

“For both species, poaching is still the biggest driver of decline,” says Kathleen Gobush, leader of the new assessments and a member of the IUCN’s Elephant Specialist Group, a group of technical experts focusing on conservation and management of elephants. 

“These assessments hopefully will garner renewed attention for the world to double down on stopping the killing, trafficking, and demand for ivory.”

Evidence has been building since the early 2000s that forest and savanna elephants should be split taxonomically into two species. In 2008, when the IUCN issued its last assessment of African elephants, it still considered them a single species, then described as vulnerable to extinction. In the years since, scientists came to recognise that forest and savanna elephants are distinct from each other.  

Since the 2008 assessment, an elephant poaching crisis has also gripped Africa. In 2016, researchers reported in the journal PeerJ that between 2007 and 2014, savanna elephants declined by 30 percent in 18 African countries. A 2013 report in PLOS ONE found that forest elephant populations had plummeted by 62 percent in less than a decade.

Poaching peaked in 2011 and since has eased in some places, notably in parts of East Africa. But it persists and is worsening in other regions, especially in Central and West Africa. Meanwhile, elephant habitat continues to be degraded by or lost to human activity.

“The potential positive conservation impact of splitting forest and savanna elephants into separate species cannot be overstated,” says Bas Huijbregts, the African species director at the World Wildlife Fund, who was not involved with the new assessment. “Challenges to both species are very different, as are the pathways to their recovery.”

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In particular, the new report should attract more attention to forest elephants. Less visible and easily monitored than savanna elephants, they tend to be overlooked by governments and donors, and their needs are overshadowed by those of their larger cousins, Gobush says. (See National Geographic’s stunning elephant pictures.)

Bureaucratically, the two species have mostly continued to be grouped together, which can hinder conservation efforts for both, says Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City. “From a legal or regulatory perspective, governments need to catch up.”

A best guess

To arrive at the new findings, Gobush and her colleagues assessed all available data for both species across hundreds of field sites, dating back to the 1960s for savanna elephants and the 1970s for forest elephants.

Using those data, they built a statistical model to estimate population reductions over time. What came to light was that savanna elephants have declined by more than 50 percent over three generations (75 years), tipping them into the endangered category. Longer-lived forest elephant numbers have fallen by more than 80 percent over three generations (93 years), making them critically endangered.

The IUCN relies on a variety of factors to determine an animal’s conservation status, such as how much its numbers and range have dwindled.

“At this point, there can be no doubt that poaching and habitat loss have devastated populations of elephants all across Africa,” says Scott Schlossberg, a data analyst at Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based nonprofit, who was not involved with the new assessment. “A few elephant populations are doing well, but the long-term trends for the continent as a whole are poor.” (Read how poaching is on the rise in Botswana.)

If anything, the IUCN findings likely are underestimates because of the scarcity of quantitative data about past elephant populations across the continent, says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a nonprofit based in Kenya, who also was not involved with the new evaluation. “The current assessment isn’t absolute and doesn’t pretend to be,” adds Douglas-Hamilton, a National Geographic Explorer. “It’s a best guess of trends.”

Douglas-Hamilton says elephants can bounce back if given the chance. “They can go from high slaughter and almost destruction to strict protection and recovery,” he says.

Kenya’s Tsavo National Park provides an example. Poaching reduced its savanna elephants from an estimated 40,000 in the 1970s to about 6,500 in 1988. Today, elephant numbers in the park have rebounded to about 17,000, a response to anti-poaching measures.

Ivory wars

Rebuilding elephant populations requires protecting their habitat as well as continuing to clamp down on poaching and ivory trafficking, Schlossberg says. The U.S., China, U.K. and many other countries have closed their legal domestic ivory markets

“Allowing new ivory sales could jeopardise the progress that has been made recently in fighting ivory trafficking,” Schlossberg says. (Learn how human suffering is linked to poaching.)

Among countries that have not closed their legal ivory markets, Japan now has the world’s largest, and Japanese carvers prefer ivory from forest elephants.

That forest elephants are now recognised as critically endangered only emphasises the heavy toll poaching for ivory continues to extract, Lieberman says. 

“All countries that still allow domestic ivory markets, including Japan, need to close their markets once and for all.”


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