By International Union for Conservation of Nature – IUCN
Gland, Switzerland, 25 March 2021 (IUCN) – Following population declines over several decades due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is now listed as Critically Endangered and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Before today’s update, African elephants were treated as a single species, listed as Vulnerable; this is the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the IUCN Red List, following the emergence of new genetic evidence.
The IUCN Red List now includes 134,425 species of which 37,480 are threatened with extinction.
“Africa’s elephants play key roles in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all over the world. Today’s new IUCN Red List assessments of both African elephant species underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savanna elephants is conserved. Several African countries have led the way in recent years, proving that we can reverse elephant declines, and we must work together to ensure their example can be followed.”
The latest assessments highlight a broadscale decline in African elephant numbers across the continent. The number of African forest elephants fell by more than 86% over a period of 31 years, while the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60% over the last 50 years, according to the assessments.
Both species suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten populations. The ongoing conversion of their habitats, primarily to agricultural and other land uses, is another significant threat. The 2016 IUCN African Elephant Status Report provides the most recent reliable estimate of the continental population of the two species combined, at around 415,000 elephants.
Despite the overall declining trend of both African elephant species, the assessments also highlight the impact of successful conservation efforts. Anti-poaching measures on the ground, together with more supportive legislation and land use planning which seeks to foster human-wildlife coexistence, have been key to successful elephant conservation. As a result, some forest elephants have stabilised in well-managed conservation areas in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Savanna elephant numbers have also been stable or growing for decades especially in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which harbours the largest subpopulation of this species on the continent.
“While the results of the assessment place the continental population of savanna elephants in the Endangered category, it is important to keep in mind that at a site level, some subpopulations are thriving. For this reason, considerable caution and local knowledge are required when translating these results into policy,” said Dr Dave Balfour, assessor of the African elephants and member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) African Elephant Specialist Group.
The decision to treat African forest and savanna elephants as separate species is the result of the consensus that has emerged among experts following new research into the genetics of elephant populations. Forest elephants occur in the tropical forests of Central Africa and in a range of habitats in West Africa. They rarely overlap with the range of the savanna elephant, which prefers open country and is found in a variety of habitats in Sub-Saharan Africa including grasslands and deserts. The forest elephant, which has a more restricted natural distribution, is thought to occupy only a quarter of its historic range today, with the largest remaining populations found in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.
“For these assessments, a team of six assessors used data from as far back as the 1960s and a fully data-driven modelling approach to consolidate the decades-long efforts of many survey teams for the first time. The results quantify the dramatic extent of the decline of these ecologically important animals. 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,” said Dr Kathleen Gobush, lead assessor of the African elephants and member of the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.
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“We are proud to have supported almost 30% of the 6,218 assessments in this update, including assessments of underrepresented species such as trees, fungi and invertebrates,” said Masako Yamato, General Manager, Environmental Affairs Division of Toyota Motor Corporation. “This contributes to the growing diversity of species on the IUCN Red List, making it an increasingly powerful tool for guiding conservation in this important year for the Post 2020 Biodiversity Framework.”
“Just like us, elephants rely on trees and the ecosystem services they provide in order to survive. BGCI’s Global Tree Assessment (GTA) — the first global conservation assessment of all of the world’s known tree species, to be released later this year — will provide a roadmap for conserving the tree species and ecosystems upon which elephants, and species like them, depend,” said Dr Malin Rivers, Head of Conservation Prioritisation, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI).
“Regular re-assessment of a species’ status on the Red List helps to highlight worrying trends like what the elephants of Africa are experiencing. The health of our planet depends on the health of elephants and the ecosystems they inhabit, which is why Global Wildlife Conservation supports the Elephant Crisis Fund to get funding to groups across Africa working to save, recover, and manage elephant populations,” said Dr Barney Long, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Senior Director of Species Conservation.
“Few species evoke the sense of awe African elephants command. This latest assessment shows us that even the most charismatic species need our unwavering protection,” said Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve. O’Brien continued, “The successful conservation efforts that have taken place thus far bring us hope, but only a coordinated effort to bring together data, policy, and local knowledge will help resolve the underlying issue at hand – the mass extinction of our planet’s precious biodiversity.”
“This year sees the native Australian shrub Cangai Wattle (Acacia cangaiensis) enter the IUCN Red List as Endangered. As we saw on news headlines across the globe last year, the Australian bushfire season caused extreme damage, and ever since scientists have been hard at work evaluating the long-term impact the fires had on wildlife. Unfortunately, with restricted distribution, and increasing risk from wildfires and droughts, this Acacia, which grows in the Australian state New South Wales, is now at high risk of extinction. The good news is that we have banked the seeds of the Acacia at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank for long-term safekeeping and these seeds can also be used for post-fire restoration if required,” said Jack Plummer, scientist in the Conservation Assessment team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
“These two Red List assessments reflect the outcome of the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group taking a bold, collaborative, evidence based decision to assess the African elephant as two separate species for the first time and understanding the implications and consequences of this shift. The outcome are robust assessments that provide users with the options to focus conservation efforts appropriately for the Critically Endangered forest elephant and the Endangered savanna elephant. It will be essential for IUCN SSC to engage with African range states and other agencies in dealing with the implications of the assessments,” said Dr Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
“The recent decision to list both African elephant species as Threatened (the African forest elephant as Critically Endangered and the African savanna elephant as Endangered) will help to strengthen international efforts to control poaching and provide guidance on the geographical trends in intensity of threats. It will also support those countries and regions that have implemented successful conservation efforts through local knowledge and initiatives, so that a plan for continent-wide recovery can be successful,” said Dr. Thomas E. Lacher, Jr., IUCN Red List Committee and Texas A&M University Red List Partner.
“Conservation efforts to protect savannah elephants have seen many populations begin to recover, but sadly the same is not true for forest elephants, which remain under intense pressure from habitat loss and poaching. In the Dja Biosphere Reserve in Cameroon, for example, ZSL’s work with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) suggests a 70% drop in numbers since 1995, with as few as 220 animals remaining,” said Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), “Recovering these populations is vital for the forests but needs commitment across communities, companies and government working together to achieve success.”
“The Forest Elephant and the Savannah Elephant are already listed as two separate species on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species. We welcome IUCN’s recognition of two distinct African elephant species, and hope that it will lead to greater conservation actions for both species. In particular, the Forest Elephant has suffered drastic declines over the past few decades,” said Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).
IUCN actively supports the development of an ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM and Red List Index will be used to track progress towards species conservation targets.
IUCN–Toyota Partnership: The five-year partnership between IUCN and Toyota Motor Corporation announced in May 2016 has been significantly increasing knowledge on the extinction risk of more than 28,000 species, including many that are key food sources for a significant portion of the global population. This partnership is driven by the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, which aims to reduce the negative impacts associated with automobiles to zero, whilst simultaneously making positive impacts on society.
The IUCN Red List
Global figures for the 2021-1 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:
TOTAL SPECIES ASSESSED = 134,425
(Total threatened species = 37,480)
Extinct = 900
Extinct in the Wild = 79
Critically Endangered = 8,188
Endangered = 14,106
Vulnerable = 15,186
Near Threatened = 7,889
Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 176 (this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of The IUCN Red List)
Least Concern = 69,149
Data Deficient = 18,752
The figures presented above are only for those species that have been assessed for The IUCN Red List to date. Although not all of the world’s species have been assessed, The IUCN Red List provides a useful snapshot of what is happening to species today and highlights the urgent need for conservation action. Relative percentages for threatened species cannot be provided for many taxonomic groups on The IUCN Red List because they have not been comprehensively assessed. For many of these groups, assessment efforts have focused on threatened species; therefore, the percentage of threatened species for these groups would be heavily biased.
For those groups that have been comprehensively assessed, the percentage of threatened species can be calculated, but the actual number of threatened species is often uncertain because it is not known whether Data Deficient (DD) species are actually threatened or not. Therefore, the percentages presented above provide the best estimate of extinction risk for those groups that have been comprehensively assessed (excluding Extinct species), based on the assumption that Data Deficient species are equally threatened as data sufficient species. In other words, this is a mid-point figure within a range from x% threatened species (if all DD species are not threatened) to y% threatened species (if all DD species are threatened). Available evidence indicates that this is a best estimate.
The IUCN Red List threat categories are as follows, in descending order of threat:
Extinct or Extinct in the Wild
Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction.
Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing conservation measures.
Least Concern: species evaluated with a lower risk of extinction.
Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data.
Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) or Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild): these are not IUCN Red List Categories, but are tags developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already extinct but for which confirmation is required; for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals.