African Forest Elephant : New jumbo species lurking in the heart of Africa?

Read the article below to know more about this elusive rain forest dweller !!!
Are they the newest species of elephant ?! But one thing is certain; this rainforest dweller is ecologically related to the Asian elephant.


Most of are used to thinking that today, there are just 2 species of elephants living in the wild – The Asian elephant and the African elephant. Everyone knows about the mammoth too, but they are extinct! But wait! there might be a third species of elephant hidden away in the heart Africa!!! They are smaller, fewer and more elusive than the well known African bush elephant. It is especially interesting to note that these elephants from the continent of Africa, shares a very similar habitat and body size with the Asian elephant.

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)

Credit: Roger Le Guen, Photo taken on Dec,2012 @ Congo Brazza Licenese: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Recent DNA studies found differences deep enough to suggest making this smaller cousin of the African elephant, a new species. The study was published in December,2010 [1]. The study states that the African elephant populations diverged into two groups around the same time when Asian elephants and mammoths evolved into separate groups. Given the ancient divergence, the 2010 study argues that the Forest elephants should be given separate species status.[1]

So the traditional way of classifying elephants into just 2 major groups may soon be modified to accommodate a third group.

Mention African elephant and one tends to imagine herds of elephants roaming vast and often dry grass lands – this is the familiar savanna elephant, also known as the bush elephant (Loxodonta africana).

African Savanna Elephant

African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Credit: Timo, Photo taken on Oct,2004 @ Rift Valley, Kenya  License: (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

Central Africa has has lush tropical forests in and around Congo Basin. The elephants living in these forested areas are smaller than their cousins dwelling in open plains. They have rounder ears and straighter, downward pointing tusks compared to the savanna elephant. However these differences were not sufficient to elevate them to a unique species. But new DNA studies might pave the way toward full species status [1][2].

Conservation implications of the new discovery

These discoveries ought to bring significant changes in African elephant conservation models  [2][3][11] . As the number of forest elephants is much lower than the savanna elephant numbers, they should get higher priority in conservation, suggests Dr Alfred Roca, of the University of Illinois, co-author of the new study[11] .

Hillary Clinton told that the African Forest elephants are expected to be extinct in the next 10 years unless poaching is curbed. She was announcing a new global initiative to protect Africa’s wild elephants on September 2013 at the Clinton Global Initiative.[48]

African forest elephants

African Forest Elephant Group

Credit: Roger Le Guen, Photo taken on Dec,2012 @ Congo Brazza  License: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Why are elephants important ?

Elephants are mega gardeners and greatly aid to sustain forests. This is because they are the largest herbivores and they disperse huge number of seeds in their dung over great distances [21][17][18]. They also clear and create new pathways in dense forest which in turn helps smaller, less powerful animals [17][18]. African elephants disperse seeds from at least 335 plant species, while Asian elephants are known to disperse seeds of 122 species. This list is likely to increase as more studies are conducted, especially in Asia [21]. Thus it is critical to protect them to maintain the health of world’s forests.

sprout from elephant dungA Seedling Sprouting from Elephant Dung – The seeds excreted by the elephants are wrapped in an instant fertilizer packet

                                          Credit: Butterdaisy, License:(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Threats the Elephants face, Reasons and Solutions

Poaching for illegal ivory trade is widespread in African and the range of African forest elephants are no exception. Poaching is fueled by the civil unrest as well as the heightened demand for ivory based products across the globe[31][32][33][34][37]. Roads are built into the forests to transport forest resources like timber etc. These roads make forests and its vulnerable residents more accessible to poachers [16]. The shrinking forests due to encroachment adds to the threats faced by the wildlife [6].[37]. An additional threat the elephants face is from an unsustainable demand for elephant meat [50].

The graph below shows the drastic reduction of elephant numbers in Africa in little over 30 years [42][47].

African elephant population trendAfrican elephants’ downward population trend in about a little over 30 years

Credit: Butterdaisy,  License:(CC BY-SA 4.0)

During the last decade alone, 11,000 elephants were killed for ivory in Gabon’s Minkebe National Park [15].Gabon’s national parks are important because these tropical rainforests contain the largest forest elephant population [35].

People who buy ivory products are unaware that these products are the result of severe cruelty. The ivory consumers unwittingly fuel illegal trade and most importantly, unsustainable and irreversible destruction of key species. If they realized what a terrible price the animals and the communities concerned are paying for it, the demand for these products would decrease. Public awareness was a key factor behind the reduction in the demand for ivory in North America and Europe in the 20th century. Similarly it can play its part in reducing the demand today in Asia [38].

UNEP* and CITES** partnered with Shanghai authorities to put up posters in the city’s metro network, to raise awareness about the issue. The city’s metro is one of the busiest in the world, which carried almost 2.3 billion passengers in 2012. Actress Li Bingbing,has urged greater effort by governments and consumers to combat illegal wildlife trade. She is one of China’s most-popular celebrities and a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador [38].

On February, 2014, United States President Obama announced the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.  The Strategy includes a ban on commercial trade of elephant ivory. It prohibits the import, export, or resale of elephant ivory within the United States with very limited exceptions. This strategy is aimed enhance US efforts to protect elephants and other wildlife. [49]

Many other nations are strengthening law enforcement and raising public awareness under the leadership of IUCN and other key conservation organizations. Hopefully these actions will finally eliminate the destruction of key species and the resulting ecological disasters.[51][52][53]

* United Nations Environment Programme
** Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

African Forest Elephant Vs African Savanna Elephant

Now that we know there are two types of elephants in Africa,let’s take a closer look at the major differences between Savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana ) and Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis ). I have included the similarities between Asian elephants (Elephas maximus ) and African Forest elephant wherever appropriate. This is because the elephants in Asia are ecologically related to African Forest elephant as they both reside in tropical forests [21].

Behavior and Diet

The forest elephants move in smaller groups of 2-8 compared to savanna elephants 4-14.The average family unit consists of 3 to 5 elephants, usually made up of related females. [54][55][56]. Fruits form a major part of their diet. Tree barks, leaves and grasses are also part of their diet [57][58]. The savanna elephants on the other hand consume mainly grasses and tree leaves and bark. Asian elephants consume grasses including bamboo, tree leaves, bark and fruit [59].  The forest elephants like all other elephants supplement their diet with minerals from mineral sources such as bais (clearings in West and Central African forests with mineral rich water holes) [60]. It is thought that they obtain sodium by consuming salt coated vegetation if their range falls near coastal regions [57].

African forest elephants at mineral lick

African Forest Elephant Group at a Mineral Lick

Credit: Richard Ruggiero/USFWS, Photo taken on Jan, 2011   License: (CC BY 2.0)

Size Comparison

Savanna-elephant Forest-elephant Reference
Height 3.5 meters 2.5 meters [7][4]
Weight 6300-7500 Kg 2700-6000 Kg [7]

african forest and savanna elephant comparison

African Forest Elephant Vs African Savanna Elephant

Picture made according to the height difference ratio and physical feature differences 

Credit: Butterdaisy, License:(CC BY-SA 4.0)


Forest elephant’s ears have a more rounded appearance compared to savanna elephant’s ears [4][8][17]. Savanna elephant’s ears  are said to resemble the African continent’s shape ! [13][14] But forest elephant’s ears are more rounded overall. The pictures given below make the idea clear.

African Forest ElephantsAfrican Savanna Elephant

Note the Rounded ears of the African Forest Elephants  and the more pointed tips of Savanna Elephant

Credit for Forest Elephants: USFWS, Photo taken on Jan, 2011   License: (CC BY 2.0)

Credit for Savanna Elephant: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Photo taken on Jul, 2011@ Mikumi National Park, Tanzania  License: GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2

After reading this, if you started wondering what an Asian elephant’s ears look like, there are interesting references in many books that their ears resemble the map of India!!! [22][23][24].

Asian Elephant

Note the droopier, smaller ears of the Asian elephant. The ears are said to resemble India, a part of their resident continent

Credit: N. A. Naseer, Photo taken on Jul, 2008   License: (CC BY-SA 2.5 IN) 

It will be fun to look at Asian elephant pictures with this new perspective. Doesn’t their ears resemble a part of their Asia range? Thus if you look closely, you will notice that all the elephant’s ears resemble part or all of their resident continents. What a lovely coincidence!


By now, you would have noticed from the forest elephant images that their tusks are straighter and downward pointing than the savanna (bush) elephant’s [58]. The bush elephants tusks curve forward, similar to Asian elephants. The Forest elephants’ relatively downward pointing tusks help them to move easily through the tangled vines and undergrowth in thick forests. It also helps them dig for mineral rich soil in river beds [6][4]. Forest elephant’s tusks have a pinkish tinge and is harder [4][17], but this sought after specialty has  made them more vulnerable to poaching [19].

Where do they live and in what numbers ?      

Forest elephants are found mainly in the rain forests of Congo basin in Central Africa [26].The Congo Basin’s 500 million acres of tropical forest is second-largest in the world after the Amazon[29]. Outside of Congo basin, they occur primarily in the rain forests of Gabon [26]. According to IUCN African elephant specialist group’s 2012 report,  close to 440,000 (4.4 lakh) African elephants live in African continent. This count includes both savanna and forest elephant count. Separate counts are not available for them yet. Although there is strong evidence to support the view that more than a single species of African elephant exists, more evidence  is required to confirm the taxonomic status of West African elephants as well as the status of hybrid populations [61]. However, we know from the report that a total of 16,486 elephants are definitely found in Central Africa[46]. Combining this with the fact that forest elephant range falls mainly in the countries listed under Central Africa, we can guess that the total number of forest elephants  will be somewhere around this number, making them a very rare type of elephant.

   loxodonta cyclotis range

Range of African Forest Elephant marked in Pink – Roughly in and around forests and sanctuaries near Congo Basin

Credit: Elephant Database – is the online home of the African and Asian Elephant Database, a joint project of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) and Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG)., Map data – 2014   License:(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Dark Purple is areas where elephants are certainly present, light purple is possible range, grey is doubtful range, protected areas are marked with yellow outlines. From this map you can see that elephants are concentrated near the protected areas and that their habitat is severely fragmented.                 


After reading about African elephants, you might wonder how many elephants remain in Asia. The entire Asian continent has only about fifty thousand (50,000) elephants left per IUCN 2003 report [27].Since I am from India, and I love elephants, I wanted to find out the elephant  numbers in India. India has 26,000 to 30,000 elephants living in its forests (IUCN 2003)[27]. India is home to 1 billion people (100 crore)  (1,241,491,960) per World bank records in 2011 [30]. In a trend not very different from the rest of the world, the elephants number in the thousands whereas people number in  multiple millions. However, there is one fact that should make every Indian proud. Despite the huge population and  the resulting pressure on land use, half of all the remaining Asian elephant population in the world resides in India per IUCN reports [27]. I hope that this conservation success will continue and  the magnificent elephants continue to grace India.I  hope that this success spreads to everywhere they occur in the world. Let us all strive to maintain biodiversity and contribute positively to Mother Earth.

Want to see more pictures and videos ? Forest Elephant Photos Forest Elephant Videos

Youtue Video of Forest Elephants in Dzanga Bai


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[8] African Silences By Peter Matthiessen Pg 140,142,of Random House Digital, Inc.. Copyright.
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[44] Distinguishing Forest and Savanna African Elephants Using Short Nuclear DNA Sequences,2011
[45]Assigning African elephant DNA to geographic region of origin: Applications to the ivory trade,2004
[56]Connor, T. 2009. “Loxodonta cyclotis” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web.,
[57] Morgan, B. J. and Lee, P. C. (2007), Forest elephant group composition,
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[59] Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants, Murray E. Fowler, Susan K. Mikota
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Journal of Tropical Ecology (2006) 22:441–449. Copyright © 2006 Cambridge University Press
doi:10.1017/S0266467406003233 Printed in the United Kingdom
Karyn D. Rode∗,1, Patrick I. Chiyo†, Colin A. Chapman∗,
‡ and Lee R. McDowell§
∗ Department of Zoology, University of Florida, P.O. Box 118525, Gainesville, Florida 32611-8525, USA
† Department of Biology, Duke University, P.O. Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708, USA
‡ Wildlife Conservation Society, 2300 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY 10460, USA
§ Animal Sciences Department, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA
(Accepted 27 January 2006)

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