Now Designated Separately, Two African Elephant Species are Facing Extinction

African Savannah or “bush” elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya           Photo: Benh Lieu Song, Wiki CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Last week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a new Red List conservation assessment for African elephants, evaluating the status of both the savanna elephant and the smaller forest elephant. The two species were once treated as a single species and classified as “vulnerable,” but the new assessment has found that the savanna elephant is now endangered and the forest elephant is critically endangered. The species have faced a rapid decline in the last few decades, but experts hope this assessment will prompt swift action from elephant range countries.

Why This Matters: The IUCN Red List currently lists over 35,000 threatened species of plants, animals, insects, and even fungi. A UN report found that one million species could be threatened with extinction in the coming decades due to climate change, illegal poaching and trafficking, and habitat destruction. During the pandemic, regions with more human activity saw a resurgence of wildlife populations, but in much of Africa, ecotourism and other sources of income for conservation projects took a big hit, and poaching increased. In South Africa, criminal syndicates took advantage of low tourism to expand poaching activities into regions once protected by the presence of sightseers and conservationists. It is the dire straits of charismatic species like these that help make the case for conserving 30% of the planet by 2030.

Two of a Kind

“The potential positive conservation impact of classifying forest and savanna elephants into two separate species cannot be overstated,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a statement. Challenges to both species are very different, as are the pathways to their recovery. The last time IUCN issued an assessment of African elephants, it considered them a single species. Following new research into the genetics of African elephants, the two were finally distinguished.

  • Forest elephants inhabit the tropical forests of Central Africa, and rarely overlap with the range of savanna elephants that reside in, you guessed it, the savanna.
  • Forest elephants are also smaller in stature than savanna elephants and darker in color.

Conservation efforts for the two have been unequal in the past. Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said that while savanna elephants have seen some recovery, forest elephants now number an estimated 225 individuals and have declined by 70% since 1995. Experts hope that observing the species separately can help range countries enact effective conservation policies that combat the unique issues each species faces.

In the absence of ecotourism, there is great demand for conservation funding in African elephant habitats. “Range states’ development of an African Forest Elephant Action Plan, backed by increased international funding, is an important first step toward long-term protection of the species,” stated the WWF. “This funding could support increased levels of investment for forest elephant conservation within protected areas, production forests, and community-managed areas, all of which require more effective and equitable management.” The international community has a large role to play in conservation efforts. The WWF emphasizes the imperative for international markets to combat demand for elephant ivory products through policies like import bans.

For people around the world, losing these hulking creatures would be akin to losing common pets. Elephants are a staple of children’s books, fashion, cartoons, and more. But they also serve as a prime example that if we don’t take swift action to protect biodiversity, even the largest beasts can vanish. Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve, said, “few species evoke the sense of awe African elephants command. This latest assessment shows us that even the most charismatic species need our unwavering protection.”

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