All About the African Forest Elephant

Updated on May 11, 2018
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Jack Dazley is primarily a researcher in environmental science and biology.

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Description and Distribution

The African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is the smallest of the two species of African elephant, reaching a size of up to 6 feet tall and weighing between 2.7 and 6 tons. As the common name indicates, the African forest elephant is mainly found in forested areas, in small herds led by a senior female, the matriarch. Recently recognised as a distinct species from the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), the tusks of this species are straight and downward pointing, compared to the curved tusks of the larger bush elephant. L. cyclotis also has more rounded ears than L. africana.

Once widespread throughout forested areas of Africa, the forest elephant is currently restricted to the tropical forests of equatorial west and central Africa. The elephants inhabit very densely forested areas, and this factor, combined with the fact that the species is relatively new to science, means that conserving these elephants is a big challenge.


Differences between the forest elephant and bush elephant
Differences between the forest elephant and bush elephant | Source

Behaviour and Ecology

Highly elusive species, African forest elephants inhabit densely forested areas and occur in family groups of around 6-8 individuals. Herd size in the forest elephant is much smaller than that of the savanna elephant, whose groups can be up to 70 individuals in some cases. This constraint is mainly due to the density of their forest habitat. Family groups are almost entirely female, with the exception of infant males, and are made up of the matriarch and female relatives. Males on the other hand males are solitary, and only tend to interact with other individuals during the mating season.

Since the species has only been recently recognised by science, there is very little information known on the forest elephants' communication behaviour and sensory perception. However it is known that these elephants have very poor eyesight, and as consequence have a heightened sense of smell and hearing. Forest elephants, like savanna elephants, are particularly sensitive to vibrations and low frequency sound, and they also have a very keen sense of smell which helps them to locate food.

Elephants are notoriously social animals, however the formation of large groups of forest animals is hindered by the dense forest environment. However scientists studying these elephants (which at the time were still considered as Loxodonta africana cyclotis) have observed multiple groups of forest elephants socialising and engaging in mating behaviour in forest clearings, as can be seen in the following video. The clearings, it seems, serve not only as a social gathering, but also give the elephants the opportunity obtain minerals and salts from the mud which are lacking in their diet.

African forest elephants are herbivorous animals, feeding on a variety of fruit, leaves and bark. A large proportion of the diet is fruit, and indeed some plant species rely heavily on forest elephants to disperse their seeds. Indeed the elephants are the sole mode of seed dispersal for some plants such as Balanites wilsoniana and Omphalocarpum spp. As a result of this, forest elephants are often referred to as 'ecosystem engineers' and analysis of forest elephant dung has found that the elephants disperse seeds across a long distance, thus playing a key role in maintaining plant diversity in the forests of central Africa.

Evolutionary History

Despite being classified as a subspecies of the African savanna elephant for many years until it's recognition as a species in 2016, recent DNA analysis of the African forest elephant has revealed a very surprising ancestry. By analysing mitochondrial DNA sequences, scientists have discovered that L. cyclotis is in fact most closely related to the European straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. The study also revealed that L. cyclotis split from L. africana 2-7 million years ago.

Revised genetic tree showing relatedness in the elephants
Revised genetic tree showing relatedness in the elephants | Source

From this new evidence arises a very tantalising question - why is this so? One would assume that the two species of elephant in Africa would be most closely related to one another, however clearly this is not so. It is very likely that during the Pleistocene glaciations of the northern hemisphere some forest elephants (or at least a common ancestor of L. cyclotis and P. antiquus) may have emigrated from Africa to Europe, and over many generations eventually developed into a new species, the European straight-tusked elephant P. antiquus. If you look closely at the tusk shape of the African forest elephant and European straight-tusked elephant, you can see both are long and straight, in contrast to the curved tusks of the African savanna elephant.

Conservation

Due to the fact that L. cyclotis is a newly discovered species and as a result not much is known about it's behaviour, conservation efforts for the forest elephant are proving notoriously difficult. The forest elephant has a lengthy gestation period of around 22 months, and females do not begin to breed until they reach 23 years of age, as compared to 12 years old in savanna elephants. In addition, the time interval between pregnancies in forest elephants can be up to 6 years, as opposed to a 3-4 year interval in L. africana.

As a result, African forest elephant populations are really struggling to grow in the face of habitat loss and poaching due to a painfully slow birth rate. Indeed the population is estimated to have decreased by 65% since 2002, due to poaching and deforestation for logging and for agricultural land. As with the savanna elephant, human-wildlife conflict is a great burden on the population of L. cyclotis, and conservationists estimate that the species could be extinct within 10 years unless considerable efforts are made to save these elephants.

Habitat fragmentation due to agriculture and logging is one of the biggest threats to African forest elepphants
Habitat fragmentation due to agriculture and logging is one of the biggest threats to African forest elepphants | Source

Conclusion

Though only recognised as a separate species less than 2 years ago, the African forest elephant is an incredibly important animal for the forest ecosystems of Africa and for African biodiversity as a whole. Not only are they very important ecosystem engineers, involved in the dispersal of many species of African plants central in the forest biome, but they also make up to one third of the elephant population in Africa. Though we are beginning to understand the life history and behaviour of this majestic animal, we have so much more to learn in order to conserve the species.

Further Reading

- Save the Elephants, with whom I have worked to raise awareness of African wildlife conservation. http://www.savetheelephants.org/

- African Wildlife Foundation, https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/forest-elephant

- World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/forest-elephant

- African Forest Elephant Foundation, https://forestelephants.org/

- Loxodonta cyclotis on Arkive, http://www.arkive.org/forest-elephant/loxodonta-cyclotis/

References

- Groves, C. P., 2016. Biodiversity: Two African elephant species, not just one. Nature, 538 (371).

- Meyer, M. et al. 2017. Palaeogenomes of Eurasian Straight-Tusked Elephants Challenge the Current View of Elephant Evolution. eLIFE, 6, 1-14.

- Nsonsi, F., Heymans, J-C., Diamouangana,J.and Breuer, T., 2017. Attitudes Towards Forest Elephant Conservation Around a Protected Area in Northern Congo. Conservation and Society, 15 (1), 59-73.

- Poulson, J. R., Rosin, C., Meier, A., Mills, E., Nunez, C. L., Koerner, S. E., Blanchard, E., Callejas, J., Moore, S. and Sowers, M., 2017. Ecological consequences of forest elephant declines for Afrotropical forests. Conservation Biology.

© 2018 Jack Dazley

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