© Nuria Ortega

African elephants

African Forest Elephant
Securing a future for the gardeners of the African rainforests

The forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is one of two living African elephant species, the other being the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana). Historically, forest elephants  thrived in the dense rainforests of west and central Africa but according to the last assessment released in 2021, their population declined by a staggering 86% over a period of 31 years. With around 150,000 forest elephants remaining in the wild, they are now listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  


How are forest elephants different from their savanna cousins?


Forest elephants have evolved unique traits that distinguish them from their savanna cousins. They are smaller in size, with straighter tusks that are thinner and more downward-pointing. Their rounded ears are larger, and their trunks are more slender and elongated, enabling them to maneuver more efficiently through the thick undergrowth. These adaptations are essential for their survival in the dense rainforest environment.


Although they are highly social creatures, they often live in small family units of less than five members, consisting of mothers and their offspring. Male forest elephants, like their savanna counterparts, tend to be more solitary, but they may occasionally form temporary associations with other males.


Like their savanna cousins, forest elephants are renowned for their exceptional cognitive abilities and intricate communication. They communicate using a combination of vocalizations, body language, and infrasound – low-frequency sounds that can travel long distances through the dense vegetation. These communication methods help maintain social bonds, warn of danger, and coordinate group movements.


According to a 2016 study, one unfortunate distinction is that forest elephants reproduce more slowly, and have a longer generation time (31 years) than savanna elephants. Forest elephants start to breed at a later age, and with longer intervals between calves, than other elephant species, making it more difficult for their populations to recover and stabilize.


Without them the forests of the Congo Basin would look very different


The survival of the African rainforest ecosystem is intricately linked to the presence of forest elephants. As "ecosystem engineers," they help shape their habitat and maintain biodiversity through seed dispersal and contributing to forest regeneration. 


African forest elephants feed on leaves, grasses, seeds, fruit, roots and tree bark. They open up pathways through the underbrush providing access to food for other species. Over several years some of these pathways expand into highways, contributing to the formation of large natural forest clearings commonly referred to as ‘bais’ in the local languages, that provide minerals, water and protein-rich vegetation that cannot be found in the forest. 


Forest elephants play a critical role in the forest carbon cycle, doing their part in slowing down the effects of climate change.  By eating fast growing understory trees that capture less carbon, they thin out the rainforest undergrowth and allow larger trees that store more carbon to grow better, directly contributing to the carbon storage capacities of the habitats they reside in. They also help maintain the nutrient flow in the environment necessary for sustaining agriculture for communities living in and around these forests.


They face bigger challenges than their larger cousins


Despite the global importance of forest elephants, they are facing bigger challenges than their savanna-dwelling cousins. Because they have slower breeding rates than their savanna cousins, they are more vulnerable to poaching, because they cannot “bounce back” as rapidly from population reductions.


Besides the threat of international trade in ivory and their inherent inability to rapidly replace themselves, an emerging threat for forest elephants might be the decline in fruit production in the forest. A study published in September 2020 from Lope National Park in Central Gabon found that climate change caused an 81% decline in fruit production over the last thirty years (1986–2018). That in turn resulted in an 11% decline in elephants’ body condition between 2008 and 2018.


As habitats contract and human populations expand, people and elephants are increasingly coming into contact with each other. (For more on human / forest elephant Conflict, download this report: Humans and forest elephants in Central Africa: Conflict and co-existence in and around protected areas, by Thomas BREUER and Steeve NGAMA). Where farms border elephant habitat or cross elephant migration corridors, damage to crops and villages can become commonplace. This often leads to conflicts that can result in the unfortunate loss of human lives and livelihoods as well as the death of elephants. Poaching certainly has also created demographically disturbed elephant populations as large musth males and experienced females have been primarily targeted by poachers. Having witnessed the slaughtering of family members certainly has left traces in teenagers as an elephant never forgets.


But we can turn things around


With forest elephants facing an uphill struggle for survival, WWF is working with governments, local communities and partners in range countries to develop a new conservation strategy aimed at reducing and eliminating some of the threats that forest elephants face.


Forest elephants need to move across large swathes of forest to survive, but the migration corridors they have depended on for generations are being converted into agricultural lands, infrastructure, extractive industries and other destructive human activities at an alarming rate. We need to reverse these trends by focusing our efforts on conserving the rapidly shrinking and fragmenting forest elephant habitats. 


Human-elephant conflict is often a difficult subject to broach as it often involves loss of life and livelihoods, fear, anger, and elephants killed in defence or retaliation.  We must seek ways to shift people's interactions with forest elephants away from conflict towards something more beneficial, where, not only elephant populations thrive but also the people who live alongside them are safe and supported by healthy ecosystems.


It is vital that international efforts are intensified to stop ivory trafficking all along the chain, from the source in the forests of Africa all the way to its destinations, particularly in Asia.


African forest elephants, with their extraordinary adaptations, social structures, and crucial role in maintaining the rainforest ecosystem, are a remarkable example of the magnificence of nature. Through concerted conservation efforts, awareness campaigns, and sustainable practices, we can secure a brighter future for the African forest elephants, and by extension, the rich and diverse ecosystems they inhabit. 


WWF and its partners are calling on donors and governments to increase their support to African forest elephant range States to ensure a future where the gardeners of the African rainforests thrive again.