African forest elephant

Facts

  • 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.

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An adult jaguar laying on a thick brown tree branch in the jungle with green foliage in the background and brown reeds hanging in front

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.

Threats

  • Extinction Risk Critically Endangered
    1. EX
      Extinct

      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
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      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.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

Forest elephants are primarily threatened by poaching for bushmeat and ivory. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year to meet the illegal international demand for ivory. In January 2012, over 200 elephants were slaughtered in a raid by invading Sudanese poachers in a single national park in Cameroon. Many governments do not have adequate financial or human resources to protect their elephants, conduct regular population estimates or enforce regulations. This allows poaching to become a chronic, significant problem. Thriving but unmonitored domestic ivory markets in a number of African countries—some of which have few elephants of their own remaining—also fuel the illegal international trade. Anecdotal evidence from the field suggests many elephants across central Africa are also being hunted for their meat but the scale of the problem has yet to be determined.

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.

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 world’s largest 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 taken against anyone attempting to impede justice.

Since 1989, TRAFFIC has managed the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) database, which is a comprehensive information system to track illegal trade in ivory and other elephant products. 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.

Experts

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