Elephants in Africa are of two species: savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). While this distinction had been recognised for some considerable time by people living with the elephants, it was not until 2001 that clear genetic evidence was presented by the scientific community, although some debate continued. Official acknowledgement by international organisations took longer: the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS) listed the two species separately in 2008, while the IUCN listed them as discrete species in its Red List for the first time in March 2021.
There are 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with populations of these two species. Savanna elephants are found primarily in Eastern Africa (8 countries) and Southern Africa (9 countries), with forest elephants living mainly in the Congo Basin of Central Africa (7 countries). West Africa (13 countries) has elephants of both the savanna and forest species. The elephant population of Mauritania has disappeared since 1989, while those of Senegal and Sierra Leone are under severe threat and at very low numbers.
Elephant populations in West Africa are distributed in small patches of highly fragmented habitat; while available habitat is more continuously distributed in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, fragmentation is becoming an increasing problem in all regions.
There are a few limited areas in some countries where hybridisation between the two species has occurred. This is largely where there has been severe disruption by people through habitat conversion or poaching, and elephants are forced into unfamiliar areas. For this reason, the implications for population monitoring and management of the species designation are still under review by the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG), and CITES currently recognises a single African species (L. africana) in its Identification Manual.
African savanna elephants occupy a wide range of habitats, from near-desert in Namibia and Mali, to various types of semi-arid savanna ecosystem across much of the continent. Forest elephants primarily occupy tropical forests in Central Africa; in West Africa, they may also be found in some savanna areas in proximity to forest patches.
Genetic, as well as ecological and behavioural, findings support the designation of two species of African elephant. The savanna elephant is generally larger in stature, with bulls reaching a maximum shoulder height of 4 metres, while forest elephant bulls rarely exceed 2.5 metres. Forest elephants have smaller, rounder ears and shorter and straighter tusks, which are more off-white, almost orange/ pink, in colour. Savanna elephants live in multi-generational families and extended families, often associating in large aggregations, while social groups of forest elephants are normally smaller, generally mother-offspring units, and they come together in larger groupings less often, at key resource sites such as mineral licks. The diet of savanna elephants includes a wide range of plant types and species, from grasses and herbs, through woody shrubs and trees. Forest elephants in primary rainforest feed on grasses, herbs and shrubs when available, with fruit from large trees also a key component; in secondary forest and mixed savanna habitats, their diet is more diverse.
Role of the species in its ecosystem
African elephants play a keystone role in shaping the structure of forests, woodlands and savanna, creating spatial heterogeneity and landscape-level diversity through their foraging, dispersing seeds in their dung, and facilitating access to water for a range of other species. In forests, some tree species depend entirely on elephants for dispersal of their large, hard seeds. The loss of such keystone megafauna from ecosystems could have profound and long-lasting negative effects on ecological structure and function. When confined by artificial barriers such as fences or land use blocking natural movement corridors, this habitat modification role may be seen as locally excessive in relation to the conservation of desirable plant and animal species.
Habitat loss, through conversion of forests, savanna and corridors to commercial plantation, subsistence agriculture and settlement is the most significant long-term threat to elephant populations. The AfESG African Elephant Status Report of 2016 (AESR 2016) described a steady loss of elephant range, although it cautioned that such apparent changes cannot distinguish between contraction in true elephant range and changes/ improvements in the way range is estimated. The AESR 2016 noted recent range expansion in selected sites in Kenya and Botswana only.
The most recent (AESR 2016) continental total, for both species combined, was 415,428 (+/- 20,111). However, important areas that are difficult to survey are under-represented in this total, such as continuous forests in Gabon and Republic of Congo, to name a few. It is important to note that elephants do not necessarily remain within a single country; indeed, some 76% of the elephants reported in AESR 2016 are in shared, transboundary populations in all parts of Africa.
In both African elephant species, their society is matriarchal, with adult females typically forming life-long bonds with their offspring, female relatives and, occasionally, unrelated “friends”. Savanna elephants tend to associate in larger kin-based families and other larger hierarchical groupings. Males disperse from natal family groups at maturity and form bonds with other males or live solitarily. The mean age of adults in and the social structure of elephant family groups are disrupted by poaching, which first targets the oldest adult animals with the largest tusks. Such selective killing results in a cascade of behavioural, physiological and reproductive effects on the surviving elephant population. Since the oldest females, the matriarchs, are the repositories of knowledge of social relationships and ecological hazards and rewards, their loss affects the survival chances of entire families. The removal of the most successful adult bulls is likely to increase reproductive skewness and reduce genetic diversity in the surviving populations. The negative effect of drastic depletion of both females and male elephants on genetic diversity has been well documented in Uganda, which suffered massive losses during the 1970s-80s poaching crisis.
Overall, African elephant populations are declining. These declines have been attributed primarily to a surge in poaching. While recent declines have been notable across all regions of Africa, the intensity of declines is uneven, with “hotspots” apparent in each region.
A separate compilation and modelling of survey data for Central Africa has shown that for forest elephants “population size declined by 62% between 2002–2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range.”
An independent analysis published in 2014 of trends across Africa produced an estimate of a 3% reduction in the continental population for the single year 2011, and approximately 100,000 elephants lost to poaching in 2010-2012.
Approximately 90% of savanna elephant populations were surveyed systematically in 2014-2015 by The Great Elephant Census (GEC), a continent-wide programme of aerial surveys funded by Paul G Allen Philanthropies and working in collaboration with national governments and a number of NGOs. The results of the program estimated a decline of 30% in 18 countries since 2007, with the annual rate of decline as high as 8% during 2010-2014.
Across the continent, the long-term threat to elephants is the loss or conversion of habitat through human expansion into elephant range, associated human-elephant conflict and the impacts of climate change.
In Central African forests, the impacts of forestry activities including both deforestation (habitat loss) and the building of roads (increasing human access) pose serious long-term and ongoing threats. However, the immediate, more critical short-term threat in all regions is high levels of killing driven by the ivory trade.
Data from the MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) program – the primary source of data on levels of elephant poaching in Africa – indicates that by 2011, poaching reached the highest levels since the program began in 2002, with a moderately declining trend thereafter. However, poaching levels remain high and unsustainable. An analysis of data published in 2014 concluded that poachers killed 40,000 elephants in 2011 alone, and in just 3 years (2010-2012), 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa for their ivory.
All African elephant populations in all regions are at risk. The most recent MIKE analysis that examines data through the end of 2017 and reported by the CITES Secretariat in August 2018, shows that poaching levels remain unsustainable overall and especially in West, Central and Southern regions.