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Forest elephants critically endangered

Forest elephant family

African elephants were once thought to be one species. But recently, scientists have seen that the two species diverged 1.2 million years ago. Both are endangered, but the little-known African forest species is critically so.

The two African species differ in size. Male forest elephants are smaller, 2.35 metres (7.7 ft) high as opposed to the majestic 4 metres (13 ft) of the savannah bush elephant. Forest elephant numbers are thought to have declined by 80 percent in the last 30 years, leading to concern the trend will continue. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) considers the forest elephant species to be critically endangered.

Poaching of forest and savannah tuskers is still going strong in spite of the 1989 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) ban on trade and hunting. Most recently, the forest elephant’s tusks pinkish color may have led to an increase in the forest elephant extinction rate. The superior density makes the forest elephant’s straighter tusks and denser tusks are better for carving purposes.

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CNBC reported that Ryan Tate of Vetpaw has said that Covid also kept wildlife management and enforcement rangers at home, meaning boon times to poachers seeking illegal ivory tusks, and bushmeat. Eco-tourism, an estimated $39.2 billion industry, shut down by the virus, resulted in ranger layoffs. Conservationists are also worried there was an increase in poaching for subsistence bushmeat. While Africans didn’t have “ecotourism [jobs to] depend on, [jobs were] gone. There’s going to be a lot of damage done from this,” says Tate. Some fear that it will lead to increasing extinction rate in the near future.

War has also meant numbers have plummeted in The Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Congo. Gabon seems to be the last place larger forest elephant numbers can be found. DNA and spoor collection analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with the National Parks of Gabon, has counted this skittish, shadowy forest elephant species in a country that is almost 90 per cent dense forest. Scientists have extrapolated from about 2,500 samples that only about 100,000 forest elephants may be in Gabon.

ABC News reported that Stéphanie Bourgeois, of National Parks of Gabon said, a “complex statistical model [helps] estimate the number of elephants that are in the area we sampled.”

Forest elephants promote new plant growth through trampling and allow sunlight into the forest for new plant shoots.  They also eat fruit, digest it, and then leave fruit seeds in dung miles away from the original plant. All elephants also affect their environment by using their tusks to dig for salt, minerals and roots, to save mired calves, and for fighting for a mate.

Bush elephant


The trademark large ears of the African bush species can be 2 meters (6 ft) wide. These elephants often live in hot, Sub-Saharan open territory, and their large, triangular ears have exposed blood vessels that dissipate heat. African bush elephants are found in Botswana, Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Angola, and Zambia. While forest elephants live in the Congo Basin and West Africa.

Although the growing number of farms and plantations, as well as urbanization and industrialization, have been the greatest threat of all to bush elephants; poaching is still a major concern. In 2005, a census estimated that there was a population of 3,900 in the Zakouma National Park in Chad, five years later, due to poaching, only about 700 were left.  In the four years before 2012, poaching caused the loss of 41 bull elephants, and saw bush elephant numbers plummet by 31% in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.

Black markets for bush elephant tusks, in particular, were traced through Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Chad, Kenya, and Uganda, to Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia. Poaching often occurs on the edge of protected areas, when migrating elephants are seeking water and food. About 70 percent of bush elephants that are killed are attacked outside of reserves. The global population of bush elephants has been halved in the last 60 years.

Although forest elephants are termed the gardeners of the forest, bush elephants also help ecology by creating small watering holes with their tusks and trampling larger bushes.


Other Endangered elephants include the Asian elephant. Numbers are low, and it is thought that Asian elephant subspecies in Syria and Indonesia have become extinct. Wild elephant sitings in most of China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Borneo, and Sumatra are also rare.

The Asian elephant population is now only found in India, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Southeast Asia, and has been halved in the last 75 years. Only between 20,000 and 50,000 are thought to be left outside of zoos and the tourism industry. The native habitats of Asian elephants in Thailand, central India, and Southeast Asia have seen logging, agricultural growth, deforestation, and habitat fragmentation. Only about 10 percent of the original range of the Asian elephant is now left.

Asian elephant species averages about 9 ft (2.75 m) tall, and have two bulges on their heads. Neither African elephant species have these bulges, as African bush and forest elephants have flat foreheads. Asian elephants also have mottled grey trunks, ears, and necks—particularly older elephants. The ears of Asian elephants are smaller and more rounded than their African cousins.

Asian elephants are also different from African elephants because some do not have tusks. Not all Asian elephants develop them, and the tusks on Asian females are only about an inch or two long and are called tushes not tusks. Some Asian elephant populations have lost their tusks in India and Sri Lanka.

In Myanmar, studies done by the Smithsonian National Zoo, show that, on average, an elephant walks in circular trails from one to four miles (1.6 to 6.4 km) per day. Elephants also migrate with the seasons to find better sources of food and water for themselves and their young. Fragmented territories, roads built through their habitat, railways, farmers’ fields, dams, snares, fruit salted with small explosives, poison, and poachers are all threats to these animals.

More recently, trade in using illegally-obtained elephant skin for jewelry has grown in Thailand and Myanmar.


Fortunately, the plight of the decreasing elephant populations has garnered support from charities and scientists. To keep subsistence farmers in business, and keep them from shooting large male elephants, in particular, several types of deterrents have been developed—not only expensive electric fences.

Bees have been used as an effective way to keep elephants from flattening or eating crops. This small insect is a traditional enemy of the wise pachyderm. Experiments by the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in the UK, on 45 farms in Kenya, Africa, showed stinging bees could be used to save crops.  The Kenyan Wildlife Service, the Ugandan Malaika Honey project, as well as a UNESCO-supported program in Tanzania, try to reduce elephant shootings and poisonings by erecting fences that incorporate beehives.  

Dr. Lucy King, of the joint Save the Elephants-Oxford University Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program, has been instrumental in developing projects near Tsavo East, Samburu East, and Buffalo Springs National Parks. The most up-to-date beehive fence plans are available on the Save the Elephants website. The IEF (International Elephant Foundation) is using beehive fences, and bee pheromone chemicals to scare away elephants from farms.  

In a Wildlife Society Bulletin article by scientists from Universities in Sri Lanka and Australia, recording of disturbed hornets, chainsaws, elephant group leaders, and lone female elephants were examined as a deterrent. The warning trumpeting of the leaders of elephant herds–mature females–was the best choice as a preventative measure.

Elephant tracking collars are commonly used to document elephant herd locations and migrations. The Save the Elephant founder Ian Douglas-Hamilton proved that locating herds is important part of elephant conservation. An STE conservation biologist and lead analyst, Festus Ihwagi, says “Understanding an elephant’s ranging behavior is fundamental in developing successful conservation strategies.”

More than 200 elephants have also been collared by Elephants Without Borders in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana.  

Tracking a herd, or in particular, marauding bull elephants, give conservationists the ability to call farmers involved in conservation programs and tell them to make lots of noise, thus divert elephants before getting to their fields. A bull elephant, researchers named Mountain Bull, was tracked by EWB migrating to the Mt. Kenya world heritage site area, showing that a 28 km wildlife corridor could be important to elephant herds. Due to this information, the A2 Nanyuki Highway now includes a wildlife safety feature–an underpass. Designated wildlife corridors also keep villagers safe by routing elephants away from their homes.


There are many wildlife sanctuaries for elephants. Orphaned young elephants are fed milk and cared for in the Lilayi Elephant Nursery in Zambia. Then they are weaned, and placed in a special release area of Kafue National Park. In India, Wildlife S.O.S. was founded to save injured and maltreated working elephants in Uttar Pradesh.  

In Lampang, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center houses and provides veterinary care to more than 100 elephants with the goal of reintroducing them to the wild. Thailand has tried to address the needs of working elephants with the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, particularly since logging using elephants was outlawed in 1989.

Robert Mather of the World Wildlife Fund has suggested that something be done to save elephants and their trainers from begging in the streets, after this legislation. “Let’s put them back in the wild,” he is reported as saying on the American Museum of Natural History website. “Send them back into the forest. That’s their home.”

In 1995, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has housed elephants that worked in shows, zoos, and circuses. Many have lived their lives in captivity and are in poor health. They are closed to the public but offer Elephant Cam through their website.


Elephants, Ivory, and COVID-19. (2020, July 14). PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/elephants-ivory-and-covid-19/

Project Elephant. (2020). Elephants without borders. https://www.stoppoaching-now.org/project-elephant

Wijayagunawardane et al. The Use of Audio Playback to Deter Crop-Raiding Asian Elephants. Wildlife Society Bulletin. Vol. 40, Issue 2, April 27, 2016.  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiF4uSS1tr2AhVIZM0KHQGYDjYQFnoECAsQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.abc.net.au%2Fcm%2Flb%2F8579758%2Fdata%2Fthe-use-of-audio-playback-to-deter-crop-raiding-asian-elephants-data.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2GwBwfCTg8IKYmYB3M25JX

Elephant Deterrents, Behavioral Responses, and Ecological Correlates of Crop-Raiding. (2001-2022). International Elephant Foundation. https://elephantconservation.org/portfolio-items/elephant-deterrents-behavioral-responses-and-ecological-correlates-of-crop-raiding/

8 Ways to Keep Out an Elephant. (2019, March 4). Elephants without borders. https://www.stoppoaching-now.org/post/8-ways-to-keep-out-an-elephant

Elephants return to conflict-ridden national park. (2021, April 1). National Geographic Society. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/elephants-return-to-virunga-national-park?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=facebook::cmp=editorial::add=fb20210402animals-elephantsconflictpark::rid=&sf244544594=1

‘Filthy bloody business:’ Poachers kill more animals as coronavirus crushes tourism to Africa. (2020, April 24). CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/24/coronavirus-poachers-kill-more-animals-as-tourism-to-africa-plummets.html

Elephants and Bees. (2022). Save The Elephants. https://www.savetheelephants.org/project/elephants-and-bees/

What can I do to help elephants? (2022, October 29). Guardian News & Media Limited. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/13/what-can-i-do-to-help-elephants

Let’s Learn about Elephants. (2000–2022). Society for Science & the Public. https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/lets-learn-about-elephants

HEC Toolbox. (2020). Elephants without borders. https://www.savetheelephants.org/project/hec-toolbox/

Tracking – Real Time Monitoring. (2022). Save The Elephants. https://www.savetheelephants.org/project/tracking-real-time-monitoring-app/

How to scare off a marauding elephant (2001, August 23). Elephants without borders. https://www.ifaw.org/ca-en/projects/elephant-orphanage-project-zambia

Elephant. (2022, March 1). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant

At the Lilayi Elephant Nursery in Zambia, we rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephants.(2021). International Fund for Animal Welfare. https://www.ifaw.org/ca-en/projects/elephant-orphanage-project-zambia

Dr. Lucy King.  (2022). Department of Zoology, Oxford University. https://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-lucy-king?

Our Staff. (2022). Save The Elephants. https://www.savetheelephants.org/about-ste-2/staff-trustees-2/

Site 2. (2020). Elephants without borders. https://www.stoppoaching-now.org/site-2

Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, Lampang. (2022). Thaizer. https://www.thaizer.com/thai-elephant-conservation-centre-lampang-near-chiang-mai/

Mission: Providing home, herd, rest, refuge, and individualized care for life. (2020). The Elephant Sanctuary. https://www.elephants.com/mission



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