Some African elephants are just one step away from extinction

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African elephants are differentiated into two species: that of the savannah and that of the forests, once considered as one and the same species. Overall, both are in bad shape, but one of them is approaching dangerously close to extinction.

On the one hand, we have the elephants of the African savannah (Loxodonta cyclotis), imposing and emblematic, and on the other those of the forests (Loxodonta cyclotis), more discreet due to ecological and political obstacles, and therefore more difficult to study and protect. “You feel lucky enough when you see them“, Underlines Kathleen Gobush, specialist in African elephants within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Unfortunately, according to a new conservation report released on Thursday, the more time passes, the more difficult it will be to spot them. This new IUCN assessment is the first to consider African forest and savanna elephants as two distinct species.

As part of this work led by Dr. Gobush, the researchers collected data from 495 sites across the continent. A statistical model allowed them to use the elephant numbers at each site to estimate broader trends for the two species. However, the biology of elephants does not make it easy.

Usually, IUCN indeed aims for three generations of data to get a complete picture of an animal’s welfare. However, a female elephant of the average savannah gives birth at about 25 years old, while in the forests, the first mothers have on average 31 years. Since the first available data dated back to the 1960s and 1970s, the authors were only able to analyze two generations for savannah elephants and one generation for forest elephants.

One step away from extinction

Even during these few decades, however, the changes have been dramatic. On the one hand, the savannah elephant population has dropped by at least 60%, according to the team. During their last assessment in 2008, they were classified as “vulnerable”. Now they are endangered.

Forest elephants have lost nearly nine-tenths of their population in a generation. They are now considered critically endangered. In other words, these pachyderms are just one step away from extinction in the wild.

For Alfred Roca, geneticist at the University of Illinois, the recognition by the IUCN of these two elephant species is unfortunately a little late. More than two decades ago, a study carried out on 295 skulls in museums had in fact already revealed “enormous differences” between the two types of elephant. Globally, those in forests have smaller bodies, rounder ears and straighter tusks than savannahs.

Genetically, “the separation between them is probably greater than the separation between lions and tigers“, He also added.

He does not lose hope, however. “Better late than never. I’m glad they made the distinction, as it really highlights the terrible situation the forest elephant finds itself in.“.

A female forest elephant and her calf in the Mbeli Bai swamp, Congo. Credit: Thomas Breuer

Reasons to hope

It will obviously be difficult for them to bounce back. Besides the time it takes for this species to reproduce, the IUCN assessment also reveals that 70% of these elephants could live outside protected areas, making them particularly vulnerable to poachers.

In the event of disappearance, these elephants would leave a great void, not only physically, but also ecologically. Some tree species indeed depend entirely on forest elephants to disseminate their seeds. By cutting down certain trees and chewing on huge amounts of plant material, forest and savanna elephants are also changing their environment in ways that create new habitats for other species.

Both could truly be considered gardeners, more than likely any other animal“, Emphasizes Dr. Gobush. “We just can’t afford to lose them“.

However, there is good news. According to the report, some populations of savanna elephants are indeed thriving in the Kavango Zambezi transboundary conservation area which straddles five southern African countries.

In parts of Gabon and the Republic of Congo, forest elephant populations have also stabilized or even increased. Generally speaking, where people protect elephants from poachers and carefully plan land use, there is progress.

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