Both of Africa's Elephant Species Are Now Endangered

Poaching and habitat loss push them closer toward extinction.

African savanna elephant and baby
African savanna elephant and baby. GomezDavid / Getty Images

Poaching and habitat loss have threatened Africa's two species of elephants, taking them closer toward the edge of extinction, according to a new report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is now listed as critically endangered and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) as endangered.

Before this update, Africa's elephants were grouped together and were evaluated as vulnerable by the IUCN. This is the first time the two species have been classified separately.

In the past, elephants were mostly considered as either Asian elephants or African elephants. Forest and savanna elephants were typically classified as subspecies of African elephants.

The number of African forest elephants fell by more than 86% over a 31-year assessment period. The population of African savanna elephants dropped by at least 60% over the last 50 years, according to the IUCN, which tracks the assessment risk of the world's animals.

“Africa’s elephants play key roles in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all over the world,” said IUCN Director General Bruno Oberle, in a statement. "Today’s new IUCN Red List assessments of both African elephant species underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals."

Africa currently has an estimated 415,000 elephants, counting the two species together, according to the IUCN.

Both elephant species experienced significant population decreases because of poaching. Although it peaked in 2011, illegal hunting still happens and continues to threaten elephant populations. African elephants also face continued habitat loss as their land is converted for agriculture or other uses.

There is some good conservation news, the IUCN points out. Anti-poaching measures, combined with better land use planning to support better human-wildlife relationships, have helped conservation efforts.

Some forest elephant population figures have stabilized in well-managed areas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo and savanna population figures have remained stable or have been growing, particularly in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in southern Africa.

“The results quantify the dramatic extent of the decline of these ecologically important animals," said Kathleen Gobush, lead assessor of the IUCN assessment team and member of the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.

"With persistent demand for ivory and escalating human pressures on Africa’s wild lands, concern for Africa’s elephants is high, and the need to creatively conserve and wisely manage these animals and their habitats is more acute than ever."

Savanna Vs. Forest Elephant

Growing genetic evidence since the early 2000s has convinced researchers that Africa's elephants should be classified as two distinct species.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), savanna elephants are larger and lighter colored than forest elephants, and their tusks curve outwards. Forest elephants have straighter tusks than point down.

Savanna elephants live in many habitats of sub-Saharan Africa including grasslands and deserts. Forest elephants prefer tropical forests of Central Africa and other habits in West Africa. The ranges of the two elephant species rarely overlap.

The forest elephant is thought to occupy just a quarter of its historic range today with the largest remaining populations found in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.

“This is a big deal for African forest elephants. This new Critically Endangered classification puts the spotlight on the dire situation of this species. Its unique set of challenges for recovery can now be addressed with more tailored solutions and, hopefully, more accountability by range states assisted by much needed international funding," Bas Huijbregts, African Species Director for the World Wildlife Fund, tells Treehugger.

"Forest elephants have suffered an alarming 70 percent decline in the last fifteen years or so, primarily because of poaching for their ivory tusks. Careful consideration to the drivers behind the poaching in their Congo Basin forest habitat, like lack of capacity in protection agencies, insufficient involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples, and insufficient international funding, can help implement solutions that can give African forest elephants a chance to bounce back.”

View Article Sources
  1. "African elephant species now Endangered and Critically Endangered - IUCN Red List." IUCN, 2021.

  2. Rohland, Nadin, et al. "Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants." Plos Biology, vol. 8, no. 12, 2010, p. e1000564, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000564

  3. "African Elephant." WWF.

  4. Gobush, K.S., et al. "African Savanna Elephant." IUCN Red List, 2021.

  5. Gobush, K.S., et al. "African Forest Elephant." IUNC Red List, 2021.