While some African elephants parade through the savannah and thrill tourists on safari, others are more discreet. They stay hidden in the woods, eating fruit.
“You feel pretty lucky when you see them,” said Kathleen Gobush, a Seattle-based conservation biologist and a member of the African Elephant Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.
The threat of extinction has lowered the odds of seeing one of these forest-dwelling elephants in recent decades, according to a new IUCN Red List assessment of African elephants released Thursday. The Red List ranks species by their risk of disappearing forever from the world. The new assessment is the first in which the conservation union treats Africa’s forest and savanna elephants as two species rather than one.
Both are in bad shape. The last time the group assessed African elephants, in 2008, it classified them as vulnerable. Now he says that the elephants of the savannah are in danger, a worse category.
Timid forest elephants have lost nearly nine-tenths of their number in one generation and are now critically endangered, just one step away from extinction in the wild.
Led by Dr. Gobush, the evaluation team collected data from 495 sites in Africa. A statistical model allowed them to use the number of elephants at each site to see broader trends for both species.
“Basically, we analyzed data as far back as possible,” said Dr. Gobush. IUCN aims for three generations of data to get a complete picture of an animal’s well-being. But for long-lived elephants, that’s a challenge. The average savanna elephant mother gives birth at age 25; Forest elephant mothers average 31 years old. Because the first surveys the researchers could find were from the 1960s and 1970s, they could only look at two generations for savanna elephants and a single generation for forest elephants.
Even during those few decades, the changes were drastic. The savanna elephant population has been reduced by at least 60 percent, the team found. Forest elephants have declined by more than 86 percent.
“That’s alarming,” said Ben Okita, a Nairobi-based conservation biologist with Save the Elephants. Dr. Okita is co-chair of the Conservation Union’s African Elephant Specialist 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. Grouping the two elephants together probably masks how bad things were for the forest elephant, he said.
IUCN made the switch because in recent years, “it has become clear that genetically these two species are different,” said Dr. Okita. The final proof of the union for conservation was a 2019 study he commissioned that showed the two elephants rarely reproduce with each other.
Alfred Roca, a geneticist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the IUCN’s recognition of two species of African elephants was a bit late. More than two decades ago, a study of 295 museum skulls found “huge differences” between the two types of elephants, he said. In life, forest elephants have smaller bodies, rounder ears, and straighter tusks than savanna elephants.
Genetically, “the separation between them is probably greater than the separation between lions and tigers,” said Dr. Roca.
Still, he said, “It is never too late. I am delighted that they did this, because it really highlights the terrible situation the forest elephant is in. “
It will be especially difficult for forest elephants to recover, Dr. Roca added, because of the time they wait to reproduce, six years longer than savanna elephants. The IUCN assessment also found that 70 percent of forest elephants could live outside protected areas, leaving them especially vulnerable to ivory poachers.
The death of elephants for their ivory tusks is not a new problem, and neither is the loss of habitat they face.
“They are the same two main threats that have affected animals forever,” said Dr. Gobush. Poaching comes in waves, he added; It was especially severe in the 1980s and reached another peak in 2011.
Where elephants disappear, they leave a huge gap, not only physically, but also in the work they do. Some tree species are completely dependent on forest elephants to eat their fruits, swallow their large seeds, and deposit them elsewhere in a manure pile.
As they cut down trees and chew large amounts of plant material, both forest and savanna elephants change their environments in ways that create new habitat for other species.
“Both of them could really be considered greenery gardeners, more than likely any other animal,” said Dr. Gobush. “Actually, we can’t afford to lose them.”
But there is good news.
Savannah elephants are “thriving,” said Dr. Okita, in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which overlaps five southern African countries. In parts of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, forest elephant populations have stabilized or even increased. Where people are protecting elephants from poachers and planning land use carefully, Okita said, there has been progress.
Yet he wonders whether reversing the decline of African elephants will require not just policy, but also reaching out to people on a personal level and making them feel the urgency.
“Right now we are reaching people’s minds,” Dr. Okita said. “But we have to reach hearts.”