It may be the largest land animal, destruction of its habitat and poachers have decimated the African elephant population. The forest elephant is even threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Loxodonta cyclotis, smaller than its savannah cousin and living mainly in the forests of Central and West Africa, has seen its population drop 86% in 30 years and is now considered critically endangered. extinction, IUCN warned Thursday in an update to its red list of threatened species.
The population of the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) has plunged by at least 60% over the past 50 years and is classified as “endangered”.
IUCN now makes a distinction between the two elephant species found on the continent.
The classification of the two species “underlines the constant pressures which these emblematic animals have to face”, underlines Bruno Oberle, director general of the organization which is one of the main world NGOs working for the preservation of biodiversity.
Fifty years ago, around 1.5 million elephants roamed across Africa, but the most recent large mammal census in 2016 only counted 415,000.
“These are really marked declines,” Benson Okita-Ouma, member of the NGO Save the Elephants and co-chair of the African elephant specialist group within IUCN, told AFP.
This decline should already “sound the alarm”, he said, even if the next census is not expected before 2021 or 2023.
Elephants will not disappear from Africa overnight, he said, but “this classification should serve as a warning to us. […] if we do not turn the tide, we risk seeing these animals stricken with extinction ”.
“It is the whole world that must realize that we are on a steep slope, in terms of the survival of these elephants,” insists Benson Okita-Ouma.
Experts believe, based on the genome study, that it is better to treat the two African elephant species separately (there is a third in Asia), according to the IUCN.
Forest elephants today occupy only a quarter of their original territory and the largest populations are found in Gabon and Congo.
The savanna elephant prefers a more open habitat in sub-Saharan Africa.
The fall in the number of specimens of both species has accelerated since 2008, when poaching for ivory tusks intensified, reaching its peak in 2011. And although the phenomenon has waned, it continues to threaten elephants, underlines the IUCN.
Perhaps most worrying for Mr. Okita-Ouma is the destruction of elephant habitat to increase the area of agricultural land or logging.
“If we do not plan our use of the land properly, there will be indirect forms of death,” even if we were to stop poaching and other illegal logging.
The report also emphasizes more positive aspects, such as conservation successes in Gabon and Congo in well-managed protected areas.
In southern Africa, the number of savanna elephants is also stable or even growing in the Kavango-Zambezi Transboundary Conservation Area.
“Several African countries have shown the way in recent years, proving that the trend can be reversed,” Mr. Oberle insists.
The pandemic is also having an impact on nature conservation efforts, depriving countries of tourism revenues that were used to partially finance these efforts.
Conversely, the fall in human activity has allowed elephants to “recolonize” certain areas from which they had been driven.