African forest elephant


  • Status
    Critically Endangered
  • Height
    8-10 feet
  • Weight
    2-5 tons
  • Habitats
    dense tropical forests

African forest elephants are the elusive cousin of the African savanna elephant. They inhabit the dense rainforests of west and central Africa. Their preference for dense forest habitat prohibits traditional counting methods such as visual identification. Their population is usually estimated through "dung counts"—an analysis on the ground of the density and distribution of the feces.

African forest elephants are smaller than African savanna elephants, the other African elephant species. Their ears are more oval-shaped and their tusks are straighter and point downward (the tusks of savanna elephants curve outwards). There are also differences in the size and shape of the skull and skeleton. Forest elephants also have a much slower reproductive rate than savanna elephants, so they cannot bounce back from population declines as quickly at the same rate. Their last strongholds are located in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, with smaller populations remaining in other African countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea) and Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana in west Africa.

African forest elephants live in family groups of up to 20 individuals and forage on leaves, grasses, seeds, fruit, and tree bark. Since the diet of forest elephants is dominated by fruit, they play a crucial role in dispersing many tree species, particularly the seeds of large trees which tend to have high carbon content. They are therefore referred to as the 'mega-gardener of the forest'. To supplement their diet with minerals, they gather at mineral-rich waterholes and mineral licks found throughout the forest.

New study confirms FSC-certified forests help wildlife thrive in the Congo Basin

FSC-certified forests harbor a higher number of large mammals compared to non-certified forests.

Two elephants cross a river inside the heavily forested Congo Basin

Why They Matter

  • Forest elephants are found in dense forests and are essential for the germination of many rain forest trees. The seeds of these trees only germinate after passing through the elephant’s digestive tract.


  • Extinction Risk Critically Endangered
    1. EX

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

African forest elephant in Gabon

African elephants have less room to roam than ever before as expanding human populations convert land for agriculture, settlements and developments.

Both African elephant species are threatened foremost by habitat loss and habitat fragmentation due to conversion of forests for agriculture, livestock farming, and human infrastructure. As a result, human-elephant conflict has increased. 

Poaching for ivory is the most immediate threat for African forest elephants. Their populations declined by 62% between 2002 and 2011 and during that period, the species also lost 30% of its geographical range. As this downward trend continues, the African forest elephant was declared Critically Endangered by the IUCN in 2021.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

African elephants have less room to roam than ever before as expanding human populations convert land for agriculture, settlements and developments. The elephants’ range shrank from three million square miles in 1979 to just over one million square miles in 2007. Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers. Poverty, armed conflict and the displacement of people by civil conflict also add to habitat loss and fragmentation. All of these push elephants into smaller islands of protected areas and hinder elephants’ freedom to roam.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

Forest elephants are primarily threatened by poaching for bushmeat and ivory. Despite a global CITES ban on international sales of elephant ivory since 1990, tens of thousands of African elephants are killed annually to meet illicit demand for ivory products like carvings and jewelry. Consumer demand in Asia has created the main market for illegal ivory globally over the past few decades. While poaching in Africa and demand in Asia has declined somewhat since the peak of 2012, there remains a devasting level of poaching of elephant ivory for the markets that persist in Asia, Africa, and globally. The year 2016 saw the highest volume of illegal ivory seized since global records began in 1989, and it was estimated that Africa’s elephant population dropped by 111,000 elephants in the span of a decade prior to 2016, leaving only about 400,000 elephants remaining.

Facilitated by transnational organized crime networks, with links to drug, human, and weapons trafficking, illegal wildlife trade is a high-profit, low-risk crime that threatens wildlife populations, global security, human health, livelihoods of local communities, and legitimate business operations. Limited resources, combined with large areas of remote elephant habitats, make it difficult to monitor and protect elephant herds. At the same time, advances in technology and connectivity across the world have streamlined the communication, payment and transport of illegal wildlife along the trafficking chain from the wild to the buyer. With the cloak of anonymity and ease of connecting online, wildlife traffickers can identify interested buyers across the globe and complete transactions using everyday apps and services.

Human-Elephant Conflict

Human Elephant Conflict

“Chili bombs,” a mixture of dried elephant dung and hot chili, are placed in crop fields to keep elephants away because they do not like the smell of chili.

As habitats contract and human populations expand, people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other. Where farms border elephant habitat or cross elephant migration corridors, damage to crops and villages can become commonplace. This often leads to conflicts that elephants invariably lose. But loss of life can occur on both sides, as people may be trampled while trying to protect their livelihoods, and game guards often shoot "problem" elephants.

What WWF Is Doing

Forest elephant What WWF is doing

Ivory products carved from poached ivory elephant tusks and rhino horn confiscated by antipoaching patrols in Gabon, Africa.

Building New Opportunities

WWF helps to create employment opportunities in industries such as tourism and protected areas management. We promote alternatives like community-based fisheries to reduce poverty and give people a readily available source of protein. This decreases dependence on bushmeat as a source of food and income. In addition, WWF works with local railways, trucking firms and airlines to discourage the commercial bushmeat trade.

Stopping Poaching

In the Congo Basin, WWF strives to eliminate illegal hunting in protected areas and end the hunting of forest elephants. WWF advocates for sustainable hunting of less vulnerable species in buffer zones and community hunting reserves which contributes to the survival of wildlife outside of protected areas. This also provides affordable meat to a poor and growing human population.

WWF brought together neighboring countries in the Congo Basin to join forces to protect wildlife from poaching. The Sangha Tri-national Anti-poaching Brigade of Gabon, Congo and Central African Republic, is an example of WWF’s regional approach to tackle illegal elephant poaching. These “wildlife soldiers” move freely within the area and pursue poachers across borders as a result of this international cooperation. We have also established Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) methodologies in several protected area sites.

Tackling Illegal Trade

WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, support a Central African Forest Commission commitment to put a groundbreaking regional network called PAPECALF into place that will strengthen law enforcement and better combat poaching of species at risk from illegal wildlife trade. The plan calls for increased antipoaching efforts, joint patrols in some transboundary areas, better customs controls at international transit points, more intense investigations, and more thorough prosecutions. Cases will also be monitored for corruption, and action will be taken against anyone attempting to impede justice. Our work assessing ivory markets in West Africa and identifying illegal ivory trade routes from Central to West Africa and into Asia has played an important role in putting together effective conservation strategies. 

In tackling the consumer demand for elephant ivory, WWF has been at the forefront of global campaigns to influence governments, the private sector and the public to help stop wildlife crime. Using social and behavior change science, we have developed the longest running assessments of consumer demand and motivations for elephant ivory in Asian markets, which we have used to tailor consumer specific awareness campaigns to deter buyers of elephant ivory. 

WWF also works with e-commerce, social media, and technology companies through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online to address elephant ivory trade and other wildlife crimes on web-based platforms. Launched in 2018, the Coalition includes 47 member companies operating across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.


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