- STATUS: Critically Endangered
- HEIGHT: 8-10 feet
- WEIGHT: 2-5 tons
- HABITATS: Dense tropical forests
The African forest elephant is a distant cousin of the African savanna elephant. They live in West and Central Africa’s lush rainforests. Traditional counting methods, such as eye identification, are impossible due to their affinity for deep woodland environment. Dung counts—an analysis of the density and distribution of feces on the ground—are commonly used to estimate their population.
African forest elephants are smaller than the other African elephant species, African savanna elephants. Their tusks are straighter and point downward, and their ears are more oval-shaped (the tusks of savanna elephants curve outwards).
The size and shape of the skull and skeleton are also different. Forest elephants also reproduce at a slower pace than savanna elephants, therefore they cannot recover from population decreases as quickly as savanna elephants. Gabon and the Republic of Congo are their last strongholds, with lesser concentrations in other African countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea) and west African countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana).
African forest elephants forage on leaves, grasses, seeds, fruit, and tree bark in family groups of up to 20 members. Forest elephants have an important role in propagating many tree species, particularly the seeds of huge trees with high carbon content, because their diet is dominated by fruit. As a result, they’re known as the ‘forest’s mega-gardener.’ They gather at mineral-rich waterholes and mineral licks throughout the forest to augment their diet with minerals.
Why They Matter
Forest elephants live in deep woods and are necessary for the germination of many rain forest trees. After passing through the elephant’s digestive tract, the seeds of these trees germinate.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats to both African elephant species as a result of forest conversion for agriculture, livestock husbandry, and human infrastructure. As a result, conflict between humans and elephants has escalated.
The most urgent threat to African woodland elephants is ivory poaching. Between 2002 and 2011, their populations fell by 62 percent, and their geographic range shrank by 30 percent. As a result of this deteriorating tendency, the IUCN designated the African forest elephant Critically Endangered in 2021.
Habitat loss and fragmentation
As human populations grow, land is converted for agriculture, settlements, and development, leaving African elephants with less space to roam than ever before. From three million square miles in 1979 to slightly over one million square miles in 2007, the elephants’ range fell. Commercial logging, biofuel plantations, and extractive industries such as logging and mining not only degrade habitat, but also provide poachers with access to distant elephant woods. Habitat loss and fragmentation are exacerbated by poverty, armed conflict, and the relocation of people due to civil conflict. All of these factors force elephants to congregate on smaller islands within protected areas, limiting their freedom to wander.
People and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other as habitats shrink and human populations grow. Damage to crops and settlements can become prevalent where farms border elephant habitat or straddle elephant migration pathways. This frequently results in elephants losing battles. People may be trampled while attempting to preserve their livelihoods, and game guards frequently shoot “problem” elephants, resulting in death on both sides.
Illegal wildlife trade
Poaching for bushmeat and ivory is the main threat to forest elephants. To supply the unlawful international demand for ivory, tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year. In a single national park in Cameroon, almost 200 elephants were slain by invading Sudanese poachers in January 2012. Many governments lack the financial and human resources necessary to protect elephants, undertake regular population estimates, and enforce legislation.
Poaching becomes a chronic and serious problem as a result of this. Domestic ivory markets thrive but are unregulated in a number of African countries, some of which have few elephants of their own, fueling the illegal international traffic. Many elephants are being hunted for their meat across central Africa, according to anecdotal evidence from the field, but the size of the problem has yet to be determined.