Both Threatened by Unchecked Habitat Destruction, Poaching
WASHINGTON— In response to compelling new research, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to reclassify African elephants as two separate species and protect both as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Protecting elephants as endangered would close a regulatory loophole that contributes to the illegal ivory trade.
Currently protected as one species under the lesser “threatened” status, Africa’s elephants actually comprise two separate species — forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) — multiple studies have confirmed.
Both species have experienced steep population declines in recent years, including a greater than 60 percent decrease in forest elephants, a trend fueled by the ongoing trade of ivory, including in the United States.
“There’s now no question that African elephants are two distinct species that should be managed according to their distinct needs,” said Tara Easter, a scientist at the Center. “Both forest elephants and savannah elephants are vanishing quickly, so we must give them the stronger protections provided by endangered status or risk losing these intelligent and magnificent animals forever.”
The existence of two separate species of African elephants is supported by recent genetic studies demonstrating they split into separate species at least 2 million years ago — about the same time Asian elephants diverged from mammoths. Fewer than 100,000 forest elephants and 400,000 savannah elephants remain.
Under elephants’ current threatened status, a special exemption put in place by the Fish and Wildlife Service allows for the continued import and export of certain ivory products and elephant parts in the United States. The exemption, which would not be allowed if elephants are protected as endangered, has contributed to illegal trade and the rise in demand for ivory.
Poaching elephants for their ivory tusks is the most immediate and significant threat to the species’ survival. An endangered status would tighten this loophole in efforts to phase out the trade of ivory, as well as to provide additional funding for elephants’ recovery and raise awareness of their plight.
“The Obama administration has taken important steps to combat wildlife trafficking and ivory trade, but more work needs to be done,” said Easter. “Protecting elephants as endangered would strengthen efforts to defeat the illegal ivory trade threatening these amazing animals.”
Forest elephants and savannah elephants, as their names suggest, evolved in different ecosystems, with forest elephants concentrated in the forests of Central and West Africa, and savannah elephants generally occurring in more open terrain throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Forest elephants, which have declined by more than 62 percent in just nine years, are smaller than their savannah elephant counterparts and have straighter, thinner tusks, and rounder ears. They live in the remnants of West and Central Africa’s rainforests and are keystone species that disperse seeds over larger ranges than any other mammal in the region, which is critical to maintaining the health of the world’s second-largest rainforest. But poaching, habitat loss and civil conflicts are decimating their populations.
Savannah elephants, the larger of the two species, are also known for their impressively big tusks. Savannah elephants are found in the savannah and plains ecosystems of sub-Saharan Africa and are also keystone species in their habitat, maintaining the open canopies of savannahs and dispersing seeds over vast distances. Savannah elephant populations have dramatically declined throughout their range, with perhaps the most notable devastation observed in Tanzania, where one of the strongest populations of 109,000 elephants dropped 60 percent to 43,300 in just five years.