Some elephants in Africa are just one step away from extinction

While some African elephants parade through the savanna and thrill tourists on safari, others are more discreet. They stay hidden in the forests, eating fruit.

“You feel very lucky when you see them,” said Kathleen Gobush, a conservation biologist in Seattle and a member of the African Union Specialist Group of African Elephants at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN

The threat of extinction has lessened the chances of seeing one of these elephants living in the forest in recent decades, according to a new assessment by the IUCN Red List of African elephants released on Thursday. The Red List classifies species by the risk of disappearing forever from the world. The new assessment is the first in which the conservation union treats African forest and savanna elephants as two species instead of one.

Both are in very bad shape. The last time the group evaluated African elephants in 2008, it listed them as vulnerable. Now it says that savannah elephants are in danger, a worse category.

Timid forest elephants have lost nearly nine-tenths of their number in a generation and are now critically endangered – just one step away from extinction in the wild.

Led by Dr. Gobush, the assessment team collected data from 495 locations across Africa. A statistical model allows them to use elephant numbers from each location to see broader trends for both species.

“Basically, we analyzed the data as early as possible,” said Dr. Gobush. IUCN aims at three generations of data to obtain a complete picture of an animal’s well-being. But for long-lived elephants, this is a challenge. The average savannah elephant mother gives birth at age 25; the mothers of the forest elephants are, on average, 31 years old. As the first researches that researchers could find were from the 1960s and 1970s, they were able to look back only two generations for savanna elephants and a single generation for forest elephants.

Even during those few decades, the changes have been drastic. The elephant population in the savannah has dropped by at least 60 percent, the team found. Forest elephants decreased by more than 86 percent.

“This is alarming,” said Ben Okita, a conservation biologist from Nairobi at Save the Elephants. Dr. Okita is co-chair of the conservation union’s African Elephant Experts Group, but did not work on the new assessment.

Dr. Okita said that considering the two elephant species separately was helping to reveal how bad things are, especially for the forest elephant.

“Forest elephants, in most cases, have been largely ignored,” he said. The grouping of the two elephants probably masked how bad things were for the forest elephant, he said.

IUCN made the change because, in recent years, “it has become clear that these two species are genetically different,” said Okita. The latest proof of the conservationist union was a 2019 study he commissioned, which showed that the two elephants rarely reproduce with each other.

Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said IUCN’s recognition of two species of African elephants was a little late. More than two decades ago, a study of 295 skulls in museums found “huge differences” between the two types of elephants, he said. In life, forest elephants have smaller bodies, round ears and straighter tusks than savanna elephants.

Genetically, “the separation between them is probably greater than the separation between lions and tigers,” said Roca.

Still, he said, “It is never too late. I am very happy that they did this, because it really highlights the terrible situation that the elephant in the forest is in. “

It will be especially difficult for forest elephants to recover, added Roca, because of the time they wait to breed – six years longer than savanna elephants. The IUCN assessment also found that 70 percent of forest elephants can live outside protected areas, making them especially vulnerable to ivory hunters.

Elephants being killed for their ivory tusks is not a new problem, nor is the loss of habitat they face.

“These are the same two main threats that have plagued animals forever,” said Gobush. Poaching comes in waves, she added; it was especially severe in the 1980s and reached another peak in 2011.

Where elephants disappear, they leave a big gap – not just physically, but also in the work they do. Some species of trees depend entirely on forest elephants to eat their fruits, swallow their large seeds and deposit them elsewhere in a pile of dung.

As they cut down trees and chew large amounts of plant material, forest and savannah elephants change their environments to create a new habitat for other species.

“The two could really be considered gardeners looking after vegetation, more than likely any other animal,” said Gobush. “In fact, we cannot afford to lose them.”

But there is good news.

Savannah elephants are “thriving,” said Dr. Okita, in the Kavango Zambeze Transfrontier Conservation Area, which covers five countries in southern Africa. In parts of Gabon and the Republic of Congo, elephant populations in the forest have stabilized or even increased. Where people are protecting elephants against poachers and planning their land use carefully, Okita said, progress has been made.

He wonders, however, whether reversing the decline of African elephants will require not only policy, but also reaching people on a personal level and making them feel the urgency.

“At the moment, we are understanding people,” said Okita. “But we need to get to the hearts.”