Richard Ruggiero/USFWS (CC BY 2.0)
Contrary to common wisdom, most researchers now accept that African elephants are actually two distinct species. On the savannah lives the huge Loxodonta africana, whereas the smaller, secretive Loxodonta cyclotis is found in the forests of central Africa.
Poaching is devastating both populations, but poaching of forest elephants should be of particular concern. Research by George Wittemyer and his colleagues indicates that most females of this species do not become pregnant for the first time until they are 23, and they produce only 1 calf every 5 to 6 years (A. K. Turkalo et al. J. Appl. Ecol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12764; 2016). By contrast, the savannah elephant begins breeding at 12 years of age, and typically produces young at 3- to 4-year intervals. Thus, forest-elephant populations increase in size slowly, and are at greater risk of extinction.
Wittemyer’s work should spur increased focus on poaching prevention, and the study is also likely to reignite debate about the failure of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to recognize two different African elephant species on its extinction-risk ‘red list’. The IUCN has shied away from splitting the animals into two groups, primarily over fears about what this would mean for the status of hybrids between savannah and forest animals (see go.nature.com/2bo5nx3).
But the net effect of lumping the two together is to significantly underestimate the vulnerability of the African forest elephant. At its conservation congress this week, the IUCN needs to catch up with the science and recognize the real threat of this species’ extinction.