African forest elephants
The African forest elephant is found in the dense tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa, where it spends around 20 hours a day foraging for food. Though it was historically considered a subspecies of the African savanna elephant, modern studies now suggest that the two are separate species—and as genetically distinct as the Asian elephant and the woolly mammoth.
Compared to the savanna elephant, forest elephants are smaller with more rounded ears and straighter tusks. They weigh between two and five tonnes and typically stand at around eight to 10 feet tall. They also have a larger number of toenails than their savanna cousins. While forest elephants have five toenails on the forefeet and four on the hind feet, savanna elephants have just four on the front and three on the back.
The African forest elephant lives in a family group of up to 20 individuals led by a dominant female and feeds on a diet of leaves, grass, seeds, and fruit. They use their trunks to greet each other and express various emotions with their ears.
African forest elephants are a keystone species in their habitat, meaning their presence has a significant impact on the environment and wellbeing of other creatures living there. They keep their forest home healthy by digging for water, uprooting trees, and consuming large amounts of plant life. All of this contributes to the thinning of vegetation, which lowers the competition for nutrients and helps more sunlight reach the forest floor. They also help disperse the seeds of the plants they eat.
Elephants as a whole are incredibly intelligent and communicative animals, and we need to help protect them.
What is the African elephant’s scientific name?
The scientific name for the African forest elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis. It was chosen in 1900 by German zoologist Paul Matschie, the first person to suggest the group was a separate species.
Loxodonta comes from the Greek words loxo, meaning “angled” or “slanted,” and donto, meaning “tooth,” referring to the elephant’s tusks.
Are African forest elephants endangered?
In 2021, the IUCN released its first assessment of the African forest elephant as a separate species and classified it as critically endangered. According to its assessment, the number of forest elephants fell by more than 86% between 1989 and 2020. This reduction in population is thought to be continuing and likely irreversible.
Where do African forest elephants live?
African forest elephants live in the tropical forests of Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana.
Forest elephants continue to be threatened by a number of issues, the majority of which are human-caused.
The illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks is one of the main causes of elephant mortality.
Although the ivory trade is banned in many countries across the world, consumers can still purchase ivory in countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, where trade remains legal. Although only existing antique ivory can be legally traded, in reality, the industry continues to poach elephants and procure new stocks of ivory to meet demand. In fact, activities have increased since 2008, with poachers killing around 20,000 African elephants each year.
Reasons for buying ivory vary among consumers. Some consider it spiritually significant while others, calling it “white gold,” use it as a symbol of wealth and status. It’s also used for investment purposes, as it’s rarer than many precious metals and retains its value.
African elephants need large spaces to inhabit so they can obtain the large amounts of food they need without over-foraging in one area. However, the land available to them has more than halved since 1979. Humans have converted much of the land for residential development, farming, plantations, transportation, and mining.
Loss of habitat is a significant factor in the current population reduction and also puts a definite and restrictive limit on the elephants’ ability to recover their numbers. With only a fraction of the land they once had, only a population a fraction of the size can be sustained.
However, conservation measures, such as anti-poaching regulations and protected areas, have proved successful in some areas. African forest elephant populations have stabilised in recent years in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.
Because human settlements are now so close to forest elephant habitats, conflicts between the two are more common. When forest elephants wander into human settlements, they often destroy crops and buildings as they search for food. This results in elephants facing persecution from workers and landowners who feel the need to take lethal measures to protect their jobs or assets.
In some areas, education programs encourage nonlethal methods to prevent forest elephants from trampling crops.
Compared to savanna elephants, forest elephants take much longer to reproduce, meaning they can’t recover from population decline as quickly. It takes between 14 and 17 years for a female forest elephant to reach sexual maturity, and they have the longest gestation period of any mammal (22 to 24 months). When they do reproduce, it’s usually only one calf at a time, though twins are possible.
What do African forest elephants eat?
African forest elephants live on a diet of plants, leaves, grass, seeds, and tree bark. Fruit is their main source of nutrients, and they gather at watering holes to enjoy the mineral-rich water they need to stay strong and healthy.
Are African forest elephants herbivores?
African forest elephants are herbivores as they only eat plants. If they kill another animal, it’s usually for self-preservation or due to mating rituals and hormones. However, some incidents of elephant violence suggest they are driven by emotion, too, and can attack out of revenge.
Does the African forest elephant have predators?
African forest elephants have few predators (besides humans) because their size, strength, and herd numbers keep most threats at bay. However, young or sick elephants can be opportunistically targeted by hyenas, lions, and crocodiles. These hunters aren’t always successful, though, as elephants are very capable of defending their young and sick. When under attack, the herd will form a protective circle around their young and vulnerable to fend off attacks. Most successful kills by predators happen when a young or sick elephant strays too far from the herd to be protected.
Do African forest elephants migrate?
African forest elephants migrate during the dry months towards rivers and water sources that are less likely to dry up. During the elephants’ time away, the vegetation in their native region has time to regenerate, helping to keep their lifestyle sustainable.
Do all African forest elephants have tusks?
Yes, both males and females have tusks, and the male forest elephant’s tusks are capable of growing down to the ground. The density of their tusks compared to other species makes them even more desirable to poachers and carvers.
How many African forest elephants are left in the world?
Scientists estimate that there were 26 million African forest elephants in the year 1800, but the combined number of savanna and forest elephants today is just 415,000.
Because forest elephants live in dense forests, traditional visual counting methods don’t work. Instead, their numbers are estimated based on soil analysis, which measures the density and distribution of elephant dung.
How can you help?
African forest elephant are critically endangered, with illegal trade, habitat loss, and human conflict threatening the remaining populations.