A separate species

Did you know that there are actually two distinct species of elephant on the African continent? Despite a very large amount of evidence supporting two African elephant species most governments; the general public; as well as big conservation organisations (including the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)) only acknowledge one species – the savanna elephant.

However, a growing amount of both morphological (physical) and genetic evidence clearly points to two species, namely: the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).

Have a look at the photos and continue to read below to see how the two species differ…

The elephant calf and elephant cow The African Forest Elephant, Loxodonta africana cyclotis. At the Dzanga saline (a forest clearing) Central African Republic, Dzanga Sangha
African bull elephant on the move (Loxodonta africana), Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photographer: James Warwick - www.JamesWarwick.co.uk

Forest elephants are smaller than their savannah cousins; have straighter, downward-pointing tusks; smoother skin, rather than the moisture-collecting wrinkled skin of savannah elephants; and rounder ears, from which they derive their Latin name Loxodonta cyclotis.

They live in smaller family groups than savanna elephants and have a very different diet, with a penchant toward fruit when available.

An easy way to tell the forest elephant and the savanna elephant apart is by counting toenails. An elephant foot has 5 toes but not every toe has a nail. The African forest elephant and the Asian elephant both have 5 toenails on the front feet and 4 on the back feet. The larger Savanna elephant has 4 or sometimes 5 on the front feet and only 3 on the back.

The most important distinction of all is that, although both species are threatened, the forest elephant is in much more serious danger of becoming extinct. According to recent studies, poachers have slaughtered 65% of the world’s remaining forest elephant population in just 12 years.

Forest Elephant Loxodonta africana cyclotis Tusks are thinner and less curved than the savanna elephant. Dzanga Bai. Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic (CAR) Tropical rainforests of central Africa. © M. Harvey 2003 AF_ELE_F_003
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) Bull elephant with large tusks. Amboseli National Park Kenya. Dist. Sub-saharan Africa. M. Harvey.

Name: Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis)

Location: West and Central Africa

Height: 2.4 – 3 metres

Weight: 2 -5 tonnes

First pregnancy: 23 years

Time between pregnancies: 5 – 6 years

Population doubling time: 60 years

Name: Savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana)

Location: Eastern and Southern Africa

Height: 3 – 4 metres

Weight: 4 – 7 tonnes

First pregnancy: 12 years

Time between pregnancies: 3 – 4 years

Population doubling time: 20 years

Why is this distinct classification important?

Research today necessitates that we recognise the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the savannah elephant (Loxodonta Africana) as two distinct species and the future of forest elephants will depend on whether we recognise this distinction. By recognising the separateness of the ecologically, socially, morphologically and genetically-distinct forest elephant, it is immediately clear that their fast decline represents the eradication of an entire critically endangered species – and not just a regional sub-population of forest-dwelling savannah elephants.

The classification as one species creates an ignorance to what is happening to forest elephants, which does not serve them well. Poaching has decimated some forest elephant populations without a whisper coming out of the forests.

The IUCN Red List found in 2008 that the African elephant population was ‘increasing’ and Vulnerable. However, had Forest elephants been evaluated as a separate species then it is very likely that they would have been listed as decreasing and set at a more serious category than Vulnerable, such as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

In order to secure a future for forest elephants, elephant conservation must more prominently feature research that furthers the knowledge of forest elephants in zoological science, as well as research into the ecology of their natural habitat, in order to best manage elephant conservation strategy going forward.