The latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has brought some very bad news for African Elephants.
Both African elephant species have been downgraded from 'vulnerable' to 'endangered'. The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is now listed as Critically Endangered, while the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) is considered Endangered, according to an announcement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) today.
“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,” Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director-General, said in a statement.
African elephants were previously treated as a single species but the IUCN has officially recognized they are now made up of two distinct species. This decision comes off the back of recent genetic evidence showing that forest and savannah elephants were genetically, and most likely physically, separated for some 500,000 years.
The African forest elephant is the smaller of the two species, making the savanna elephant the world’s largest living land animal. It’s also clear that the two elephant species live in distinctly different habitats, which rarely overlap with each other. Forest elephants live in the tropical forests of Central Africa and in a range of habitats in West Africa, while savanna elephants tend to live in open grasslands and deserts found in a variety of habitats in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The recent reevaluation comes after decades of tumbling population numbers, primarily at the hands of ivory poachers and habitat loss. It’s estimated that the number of African forest elephants has declined by up to 86 percent over a period of 31 years and African savanna elephants have decreased by at least 60 percent over the past 50 years.
However, the loss of elephants is not uniform across Africa. Although many populations have suffered severe declines, others are on the rise or have remained stable. For example, forest elephant numbers have remained sturdy in parts of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, and savanna elephant numbers have been slowly growing or remaining stable for decades in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area of southern Africa. Much of this down to the success of conversation efforts, namely active anti-poaching measures and better management of land.
While this latest news from the IUCN may sound bleak, conservation organizations say there is still good reason to be optimistic about the future of African elephants.
"The international community also has a critical role to play in ensuring poaching levels continue to drop significantly for this species to have a chance at recovery. Demand for elephant ivory products, like carvings and jewelry, has measurably declined since China banned domestic trade in 2017, and we must continue to effectively engage key consumer groups to further advance this downward trend for forest elephants to have a chance to bounce back," Bas Huijbregts, African Species Director from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in an emailed statement.