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Africa's forest elephants inching towards extinction as numbers drop

Africa’s forest elephants are a step away from extinction with their population dwindling 86% in 30 years while savanna elephant numbers have decreased 60% in 50 years

  • An updated list from the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified some African elephant species following a drop in numbers
  • Forest elephants are now considered ‘critically endangered’ while savanna elephants are listed as ‘endangered’
  • Both species have seen their numbers hit by rampant poaching and shrinking habitats

Africa’s forest elephants are inching towards extinction, with their population dwindling 86 per cent in the last three decades, conservationists said on Thursday.

Savanna elephants on the continent have also seen a massive decline in numbers, dropping by 60 per cent in 50 years. 

The figures were released as part of an update to the ‘Red List’ of threatened species, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The list highlighted the broad deterioration of the situation for elephants in most of Africa, where they have been subject to decades of poaching and shrinking habitats.

Forest elephants are now considered ‘critically endangered’ – just a step away from becoming extinct, while African savanna elephants are now listed as ‘endangered’.

Elephants on the continent were previously assessed as a single species, which was considered vulnerable, but not endangered.

‘Today’s new IUCN Red List assessments of both African elephant species underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals,’ IUCN chief Bruno Oberle said in a statement.

Africa’s forest elephants are inching towards extinction, with their population dwindling 86 per cent in the last three decades, conservationists said on Thursday. Pictured: Forest elephants in Gabon [File photo]

African savanna elephants have also seen a massive decline in numbers, dropping by 60 per cent in 50 years. Pictured: Savanna elephants in Kenya [File photo]

Just half a century ago, around 1.5million elephants roamed across Africa, but in the most recent large-scale assessment of population numbers in 2016, there were only around 415,000 remaining.

‘These are really sharp declines,’ Benson Okita-Ouma of Save the Elephants and the co-chair of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, said.

While the next full assessment of African elephant population numbers is not expected until 2022 or 2023, he told AFP news agency that the declines seen already should really raise ‘alarm bells’.

Elephants will not disappear from Africa overnight, he said, but stressed that ‘what this assessment is giving us is an early warning that unless we turn around things, we are likely to (see) the animals go extinct’.

‘It’s a wake-up call to the entire globe that we are going down a steep terrain, when it comes to… the viability of these elephants.’

Experts had agreed it was better to treat African forest and savanna elephants as separate species following fresh research into the genetics of the elephant populations, IUCN said.

Forest elephants are found in the tropical jungles of Central Africa and in various habitats in West Africa, and are thought to occupy currently only a quarter of their historic range.

The largest remaining populations are found in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

Forest elephants are found in the tropical jungles of Central Africa and in various habitats in West Africa, and are thought to occupy currently only a quarter of their historic range. Pictured: Forest elephants in Gabon [File photo]

The savanna elephant meanwhile prefers open country and is found in a variety of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa.

Both elephant species had seen particularly sharp declines since 2008, as poaching for ivory exploded.

The problem peaked in 2011, but continues to threaten populations, IUCN said.

Perhaps even more alarming, according to Okita-Ouma, is the ever-increasing destruction of elephant habitats due to expanding land use for agriculture and other activities.

‘If we don’t plan our land-use properly, moving forward, then as much as we stop poaching and we stop illegal killing of these animals, there will still be other forms of indirect killings as a result of poor land-use planning,’ he said. 

The savanna elephant meanwhile enjoys open country and is found in a variety of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa. Pictured: A savanna elephant in Kenya [File photo]

Experts had agreed it was better to treat African forest and savanna elephants as separate species following fresh research into the genetics of the elephant populations, IUCN said. Pictured: Savanna elephants

Despite the overall downwards trend, Thursday’s report did highlight the positive impact conservation efforts can have.

Some forest elephant populations have stabilised in well-managed conservation areas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

Savanna elephant numbers have been stable or growing for decades in the Kavango-Zambezi transfrontier conservation area that stretches across the borders of five southern African countries.

‘Several African countries have led the way in recent years, proving that we can reverse elephant declines, and we must work together to ensure their example can be followed,’ Oberle said. 

Okita-Ouma said the Covid-19 pandemic was taking a toll on conservation efforts as many countries had seen tourism revenues used to fund protection measures evaporate.

At the same time, he said, the dramatic decline in human activity in many areas had allowed elephants to ‘recolonise’ areas they had previously been driven from.

‘During the lockdowns, we have seen animals moving all over, and that is a positive side for the animals.’ 

The IUCN list highlighted the broad deterioration of the situation for elephants in most of Africa, where they have been subject to decades of poaching and shrinking habitats. Pictured: Forest elephants in Gabon [File photo]

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