Africa’s elephants are in trouble, and human activity is to blame.
For the first time, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessed Africa’s elephants as two separate species: the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana). They found that both species are endangered, and the forest elephant critically so.
“Africa’s elephants play key roles in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all over the world,” IUCN Red List Director General Dr. Bruno Oberle said in a press release. “Today’s new IUCN Red List assessments of both African elephant species underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals.”
The last time that the IUCN assessed Africa’s elephant population was in 2008, The New York Times reported. At that point, all of Africa’s elephants were considered as a single species, and were listed as “vulnerable,” one step better than endangered.
However, mounting genetic evidence indicates that there are two species of elephants on the continent. Africa’s forest elephants typically live in West Africa and in tropical rainforests in Central Africa, IUCN pointed out. Savanna elephants prefer open areas like grasslands and deserts. The two species’ ranges rarely overlap, and a 2019 study found that they rarely reproduce with each other.
There are also physical and life-cycle differences between the two species, according to The Guardian. Forest elephants are smaller, gestate longer, and have oval ears and smaller tusks. Savanna elephants live in larger family units, have larger ears and their skulls are shaped differently. Some scientists have questioned splitting them into distinct species, because they do sometimes cross breed. However, others say the new categorization is long overdue.
“The separation between them is probably greater than the separation between lions and tigers,” Dr. Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The New York Times.