The African savannah elephant and the forest elephant have now been classified as Endangered and Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. This comes after a recent decision by the African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) of IUCN that the science is clear and it will now treat forest elephants and savannah elephants, formerly considered the same species (African elephant) as two distinct species. Since its very first Red Listing in 1986, the African elephant was assessed as a single species and (with the exception of 1996, when it was listed as Endangered, but then downlisted again), listed by IUCN as Vulnerable. 

This means that both of these species are now recognized as moving to a more threatened status. The African forest elephant is now listed as Critically Endangered, and the African savannah elephant as Endangered. Following this reclassification, WWF and WCS are both calling for continued and renewed vigilance, enforcement, anti-poaching, anti-trafficking, and habitat protection efforts for all elephants in Africa - and particularly for the critically endangered forest elephant.

Since the IUCN Red List of 2008, the Central African elephant population (mostly forest elephants), whose population comprises approximately a quarter of all African elephants, was listed as more threatened than savannah elephants. This was partly because forest elephant ivory is harder than savannah elephant ivory, and was preferred by Japanese ivory carvers, as it can be carved into very fine detail.

Whilst governments like China have made great strides by closing their domestic ivory markets, including increasing enforcement efforts, more needs to be done to reduce demand for ivory. In some parts of Africa the crash in tourist presence due to the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new threat of increased poaching because of the reduced income to maintain law enforcement efforts.

Besides the threat of international trade in ivory, an emerging threat for forest elephants is the decline in fruit production in the forest. A study published in September 2020 found that climate change caused an 81% decline in fruit production over the last thirty years (1986–2018) in Lope National Park - a very long-term research site- in Central Gabon. That in turn resulted in an 11% decline in elephants’ body condition between 2008 and 2018.

A 2016 study found that forest elephants reproduce more slowly, and have a longer generation time (31 years) than savannah elephants. Forest elephants start to breed at a later age, and with longer intervals between calves, than other elephant species. They are thus more vulnerable to poaching than their faster-breeding savannah cousins, because they cannot “bounce back” as rapidly from population reductions.

Given the overall declining trend of both African elephant species, donors and governments need to increase their support to elephant range States to ensure that their populations start to stabilise and even begin a route to recovery. In addition, it is vital that international efforts are intensified to stop ivory trafficking all along the chain, from the source in the forests and grasslands of Africa all the way to its destinations, across the globe. With this new classification, there is no time to wait.

Reacting to the news:

Said Dr. Susan Lieberman WCS Vice President, International Policy: “WCS has seen the ravages of elephant poaching firsthand in the countries where we work throughout Africa. This new classification by IUCN is an urgent call to action that governments and broader society need to do more to stop ivory trafficking, whether it is in Africa itself, or along the far-ranging trade routes and eventual destinations where ivory continues to be smuggled.”

"Conservation of African elephants has been an important part of WWF’s work since the founding of the organisation and for the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the IUCN Red List. Their new status is an urgent call to address the major threats to both African elephant species to ensure they thrive for the benefit of nature and people for generations to come," says Dr. Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife, Practice Leader.

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