Separated into two distinct species, the savannah and forest pachyderms are now classified as “endangered” and “critically endangered” respectively on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN in English) raises its alert level on African elephants. For the first time, the red list of threatened species in the world, updated this Thursday, separates the pachyderms of the continent into two distinct species. Savannah elephants are now classified “in danger” extinction, while forest elephants are “Critically endangered” – the last step before their disappearance in the wild. The species was previously considered “vulnerable”.
“African elephants play a key role in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all around the world”, notes Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN, in a press release. With this new classification, the international scientific body confirms the massive losses of pachyderm populations in Africa, victims of poaching for their defenses and the loss of their habitat.
According to the most recent estimates, the number of forest elephants has fallen by more than 86% in thirty years, and that of savannah elephants by at least 60% in the last fifty years. The results are however very variable according to the regions, underline the scientists. In some countries, where significant conservation efforts have borne fruit, certain subpopulations of pachyderms are thriving. According to Bruno Oberle, “Several countries have shown that the decline is reversible, and we must ensure that their example is followed.” A 2016 IUCN report puts the combined population of the two species at 415,000.
The decision to separate African elephants into two species should make it easier to save them, putting the spotlight – and conservation efforts – on the most endangered, which is also the most inconspicuous. “More fearful, forest elephants are less studied than their cousins in the savannah, remarks Régis Debruyne, project manager at the National Museum of Natural History. It is more difficult to approach them or to count their populations with drones. ”
The forest elephant is also characterized by a smaller size and less curved tusks than the savannah elephant. She travels in small groups. “Its genetic specificity which dates back several million years (it’s colossal!) is consensual, completes the researcher, but scientific data have long been considered insufficient to record the separation into two distinct species. Forest and savanna elephants are able to reproduce among themselves in areas where they can meet, without this having a genetic effect in the long term. “
Forest elephants, the “conservationists”
The IUCN finally joined the geneticists, in part for reasons of efficiency: a specific statute will make it possible to adapt the methods of protection to the characteristics of each species. “These elephants have different ranges and are not subject to quite the same pressures., notes Régis Debruyne. If poaching dramatically affects both species, the forest elephant is even more endangered due to the development of agriculture in Central and West Africa, which encroaches on its place of life. ” According to the IUCN, the forest elephant now occupies only a quarter of its historical range, with the largest populations remaining in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.