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The Forest Elephant and Its Importance for the Environment

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A group of forest elephants at a water hole

A group of forest elephants at a water hole

An Interesting and Important Animal

The forest elephant is a unique animal. It lives in tropical forests of Africa and is the smallest of the three elephant species. Researchers have discovered that its activities are beneficial for certain plants in the forest and potentially for the climate. The behaviour of the elephant may lead to a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which could be significant. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can increase the Earth's temperature.

Unfortunately, the forest elephant population is in trouble. This is worrying not only because the animal is an intelligent and interesting creature but also because the environment could suffer if it becomes extinct. Saving the species would help the elephant and very likely help us as well.

Gathering places are great places to observe the elephants.

Gathering places are great places to observe the elephants.

The Three Species of Elephants

The scientific name of the forest elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis. (The African elephant is Loxodonta africana and the Asian species Elephas maximus.) The animal was once thought to be a subspecies of the African elephant, but scientists have decided that it's sufficiently distinct genetically to form its own species. Most sources refer to the animal as a separate species.

The African elephant is found on the savanna and in woodlands. The forest elephant is found almost entirely in forests but occasionally appears on the savanna. Since there is some similarity in the habitat of the species, the term "forest elephant" (or bush elephant) is sometimes applied to Loxodonta africana.

An inexperienced investigator should look for reliable evidence indicating that the elephant in a photo, video, or real life is Loxodonta cyclotis. The appearance of the tusks is a clue for identifying the species, as described in the "Physical Features" section of this article.

Population and Habitat

Forest elephants live in tropical forests in western Africa and in central Africa around the equator. Despite their size, the animals are hard to find because they are often hidden by trees. This elusiveness has caused problems in determining their population size. The population in an area is frequently estimated by the appearance of dung deposits. Reliable sources agree that the animal is in trouble, but its exact status is uncertain.

The animals periodically emerge from the trees to visit watering holes and mineral licks surrounded by forest. This is one of rare times when the elephants are visible and why most of the photos and videos of the animals show them at watering holes. Unfortunately, the fact that the gathering places contain so many elephants has attracted poachers.

Males challenging each other at a watering hole

Males challenging each other at a watering hole

Physical Features of the Forest Elephant

Forest elephants are smaller than African elephants. The estimated size of the forest species varies according to the source. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an adult is said to be around eight to ten feet tall and weigh about two to five tons.

Another way to tell the species apart is the nature of their tusks. The tusks of the forest elephant point downward while those of the African one tend to point outward. Forest elephant tusks are also thinner than those of the African species, though the male's tusks are thicker than the female's. The tusks of the forest species sometimes have a yellow or pink cast. Unfortunately, their ivory is denser than that in the tusks of African elephants, making them more desirable for some poachers.

Elephants are fascinating animals, and I have studied them for more than 15 years. They are intelligent, sentient, and highly social.

— Ahisma Campos-Arceiz, University of Nottingham

Life, Diet, and Reproduction of the Species

Forest elephants are herbivores that eat mostly leaves, fruit, and bark. As they travel through the forest, they trample plants and create clearings and paths. This may give the impression that they are destructive animals. The process plays an important role in the forest ecosystem, however, as described below.

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The watering hole in the video above attracts many elephants. According to Andrea Turkalo, a leading forest elephant researcher, the area serves several important functions. The elephants obtain water and important mineral salts while drinking. The area also has a social function because it acts as a meeting place. The researcher has seen elephants from different groups run to greet each other at the watering hole. Based on her studies, she knows that the greeters are relatives. Some males may challenge each other when they meet, however, as in the photo above.

A female produces her first child at around twenty-three years of age. The gestation period is about two years. The family unit consists of a female and her calves. Related females and their calves may travel together, but the oldest female acts as the matriarch of the group. The males leave the family group when they reach puberty and travel on their own or with other males. They mate with females located far away from their birth family. The normal lifespan of the elephants is sixty to seventy years.

Forest elephants obtaining water and minerals

Forest elephants obtaining water and minerals

Threats to the Population

The elephants are killed for ivory and meat. Poaching is a major problem. Even when poaching is illegal, countries may not have the resources to stop it. The scientist in the video below says that although the protection of African elephants is by no means perfect, it's good enough for some poachers to have changed their focus to forest elephants. Animal lovers may find killing the elephants for any reason abhorrent. In some areas, poverty and hunger provide the motivation to hunt the animals for food, however.

The elephants' habitat is decreasing due to the clearing of land for its wood, for human settlements, or for space to create plantations of various types. Mines for obtaining the Earth's natural resources have also destroyed elephant territory in some places.

Unfortunately, the loss of habitat is increasing the undesired contact between humans and elephants. The animals sometimes damage crops or trample humans to death and are destroyed as a result. Forest elephants may be the smallest species of elephant, but they are still powerful animals.

The loss of any elephant is important, but the death of a matriarch can be especially serious. Her long life has given her many experiences related to keeping her extended family healthy and safe. This knowledge is lost if she dies.

Analysis of the largest survey dataset ever assembled for forest elephants ... revealed that population size declined by ca. 62% between 2002–2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range.

— Fiona Maisels et al, PLOS ONE

The Elephant Listening Project

Getting an accurate indication of how many forest elephants exist would tell us how urgent their situation is. Counting dung deposits or the animals at watering holes and mineral licks has limitations. One group of researchers is using a different method to count the animals. The Elephant Listening Project detects ultrasonic (low frequency) sounds emitted by forest elephants.

The fact that elephants release ultrasonic sounds was discovered by Katy Payne, an animal acoustics specialist. She is well known for her study of humpback whale songs. She discovered that the male whales alter their courtship songs over time.

In 1984, Katy realized that the elephants in an Oregon zoo were producing ultrasonic sounds. She confirmed the observation in wild African elephants. In 1999, she created the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. The goal of the project is to study ultrasonic sound in the forest elephant. It may sound strange that an ornithology lab is exploring elephant sounds, but the lab's equipment and other resources are well suited to the task.

The current researchers aim to match elephant sounds with specific behaviours and to discover whether ultrasonic sound is used for long-distance communication. They also want to learn more about family units and the animals that collect at gathering places. In recent years, another important goal has been to support elephant conservation.

Beneficial Effects on the Environment

The forest elephant produces two beneficial effects on its environment during its daily activities. It likely produces many more.

Seed Germination

Some seeds of forest trees won't germinate unless they pass through the acidic condition of the elephant's stomach. The seeds–still viable–are deposited on the ground in the elephant's dung. They germinate to produce seedlings in the dung. Another benefit of the dung is that it recycles certain nutrients.

Preferential Survival of Slow-Growing Trees

Researchers from Saint Louis University have discovered that the elephants prefer to eat the tree species that grow rapidly, including the ones that grow in clearings that they create. The animals tend to leave slow-growing tree species alone, which thrive. The species that grow slowly have a higher wood density and absorb more carbon dioxide from the air than the rapid growers.

The researchers say that if the elephants disappear, the proportion of fast-growing trees to slow-growing ones will probably increase. This will likely decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that the forest absorbs from the atmosphere. The researchers have confirmed their real-life analysis with a sophisticated computer model that predicts forest changes based on the elephants' behaviour.

As far as I know, the significance of the carbon dioxide reduction due to elephant behaviour in relation to the total amount of the gas in the atmosphere hasn't been elucidated. At the moment, though, the planet needs all the help that it can get.

The electromagnetic spectrum (IR is infrared radiation.)

The electromagnetic spectrum (IR is infrared radiation.)

Carbon Dioxide: A Greenhouse Gas

Carbon dioxide is sometimes referred to as a greenhouse gas. An overview of how greenhouse gases warm the Earth is given below.

  • Energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere and strikes the Earth's surface.
  • The Earth radiates some of the energy back into the atmosphere as infrared radiation, which has a longer wavelength than visible light.
  • Greenhouses gases absorb some of the infrared radiation and then re-emit it, sending some of it back towards the Earth. Though we can't see infrared radiation, we feel it and discover its effects as heat.

The function of greenhouse gases in keeping the Earth warm is helpful, but not when their effects are excessive. Several greenhouse gases exist in the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide is a major concern at the moment. In May, 2019, it reached the highest level in sixty-one years of observations at NOAA's Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory. The level has continued to rise since then. Scientists say that the burning of fossil fuels and consequent release of carbon dioxide is the major factor responsible for the CO2 increase.

Population Status of the Forest Elephant

Understanding and appreciating the status of forest elephants as well as their effects is vital. Though most scientists consider the animals to be a separate species, some sources still treat the forest elephant as a subspecies of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) because hybrid animals have been produced. The problem with this approach is that it may lead to a false assumption about the population status of forest elephants.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is a respected collector of data about animals. It classifies organisms according to their nearness to extinction in its Red List. When I wrote the first edition of this article, the IUCN classified the forest elephant in the same species as the African one and in the "Vulnerable" category of the Red List. Classifying the forest elephant in its own species and in an "Endangered" category, as most scientists think is deserved, might trigger more action from those in a position to help the animal. Thankfully, the IUCN has now done this and has classified the species as ”Critically Endangered” based on a November, 2020 assessment that was published in 2021. The organization says that the animal's population is decreasing.

Supporting the Future Atmosphere

As places around the world experience unusually high temperatures, we are reminded that the Earth is going through a difficult time for multiple reasons. The consequences might be severe if we don't find a solution for the carbon dioxide problem.

Forest elephants are fascinating animals to study. I hope they survive for their own sake. The fact that they may indirectly help to reduce the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is another reason to support their survival. Though they are highly unlikely to solve the problem on their own, the elephants and their forest habitat could be a very significant combination.


  • Forest elephant information from the World Wildlife Fund
  • Devastating decline of forest elephants from the PLOS ONE journal
  • Protect forest elephants to conserve ecosystems from the news service
  • Elephant extinction will raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from the ScienceDaily news service
  • Elephants are our allies in the fight against climate change from a professor in Tropical Conservation Ecology at the University of Nottingham via The Conversation
  • Information about the Elephant Listening Project from Cornell University
  • Facts about the greenhouse effect from UCAR, or the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches record level from the news service
  • Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from NOAA
  • Forest elephant population status from the IUCN

© 2019 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 16, 2020:

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the information.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 16, 2020:

Nice article. I have had many encounters with elephants. They are intelligent animals and are easily domesticated. India is home to hundreds of elephants and they are a protected species. Many temples also rear elephants and they take part in temple rituals..

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 15, 2020:

Thank you for the visit, Peggy. I hope that efforts are made to protect the elephants, too, and that the efforts are successful.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 15, 2020:

Thanks, Linda, for another informative article. I did not even know that forest elephants existed apart from regular African elephants. From what you described, they are vitally important for the planet in the effect of reducing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. I hope that efforts are taken to protect them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2020:

Thank you, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Eromosele Ogbeide from Benin on January 24, 2020:

nice work maam, is so exciting it

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 06, 2019:

I wish we could share the planet, too, Mel. Other creatures deserve the right to survive. Thanks for the comment.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 06, 2019:

Why can't we just share the planet? Remarkable that an animal so big can be so elusive. I hope they can save these magnificent creatures. Great work.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 18, 2019:

Thank you so much for the comment, Chitrangada. I appreciate your visit a great deal.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 18, 2019:

Excellent and informative article about the forest elephants.

Thanks for explaining, how they are different from the regular elephants, which we normally see. Your articles are always so well researched and well presented and this one is also the same.

To maintain the balance of nature, necessary steps must be taken for the conservation of all different species of animals, birds and others.

I learnt a lot about the forest elephants through your wonderful article.

Thanks for spreading the awareness.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 15, 2019:

Hi, Adrienne. Thanks for the comment. The elephants certainly have some interesting behaviour.

Adrienne Farricelli on August 15, 2019:

Thanks for sharing your knowledge on forest elephants. I didn't know much about them until know. It's interesting how they disperse seeds so easily while us humans must work so hard to just grow a garden!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 14, 2019:

Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your visit and comment. I think it's important to save the elephants, too.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on August 14, 2019:

I had no idea the forest elephants are such an elusive sub-species. We must save these beautiful beasts. Your article is extremely well-written and researched.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 11, 2019:

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Dora. I agree with you–the elephants do deserve our respect.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 11, 2019:

Thanks for helping us appreciate the forest elephant and the various ways in which it contributes to the health of the environment. they deserve our respect. I love learning about these animals from a distance, and you make a good teacher.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 10, 2019:

Thank you very much for the comment, Lora. The elephants are interesting and potentially important animals. I hope they are around for a long time to come.

Lora Hollings on August 09, 2019:

A fascinating article, Linda, about the forest elephant. I never knew that this elephant species existed as a separate elephant species in Africa. What an interesting fact that they prefer to eat the rapid growing trees and leave the slow growing trees alone which can absorb more CO2 and therefore, they are helping to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I was sad to hear, however, that the poachers have taken advantage of the little protection that they get in the forests, and thus this species of elephant if there status doesn't change maybe pushed to extinction. The video about the elephant listening project is a great addition to this article too. I hope that their study of the way that these animals communicate with one another will be very beneficial in helping conservation efforts of this amazing species. Thank for this well researched and wonderfully written article!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 09, 2019:

Hi, Flourish. The communication method between the elephants is a fascinating discovery, as you say. There is so much to learn about the animals. We may not get a chance if we continue to destroy their habitat. Thank you very much for the comment.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 09, 2019:

Elephants are marvelous creatures and the fact that they communicate with one another outside of humans’ ability to naturally process the messages is a fascinating discovery. Animals maintain languages all their own and it’s exciting to consider the possibilities in the future. I loved the rich detail you provided about forest elephants. I didn’t even know there was such a species. We need to limit human population so we aren’t such a threat to nonhuman animals.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 09, 2019:

"Incredible" is a great word to describe elephants. Thanks for the comment, Heidi. I hope you have a happy weekend, too.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 09, 2019:

Elephants (no matter the type) are just incredible creatures. I love that we're beginning to understand more about the communication capabilities of so many animals. Everything truly is connected.

Thanks again for sharing the story of another fascinating animal! Happy Weekend!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 09, 2019:

I appreciate your kindness very much, Bill. Thank you for such a lovely comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 09, 2019:

Hi, Pamela. Thank you for the visit. Poaching is a problem that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, stopping the activity is proving to be a hard task.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 09, 2019:

Reading one of your nature articles is like sitting in a favorite class at college....high praise, Linda!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 09, 2019:

I have always been fascinated by elephants. I wrote an article a few years ago about the poaching problem, and I remember that ivory is coveted by many in China particularly. The laws are not strong enough to protect elephants.

I really like this article, and I learned more about these elephants.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Thanks, Liz. I appreciate your comment. I suspect that the idea of a third species of elephant is new for many people.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 08, 2019:

This is a very interesting article. I had not heard of this third type of elephant before. You give a very informative description of the forest elephant and put a compelling case for their important role in preserving the environment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Hi, Mary. Thank you for the visit and the comment. I think the elephants are interesting to observe. I hope scientists learn more about them soon.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 08, 2019:

I am glad to know these forest elephants and the role they play in sustaining our environment. I used to put them together with the rest of the African elephants but after reading this, I have an appreciation of their uniqueness. It is unfortunate that they are now targeted by poachers.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Hi, John. Thank you very much for the comment. The situation is worrying. I hope ways to protect the elephants are discovered and put into action soon.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 08, 2019:

This was so interesting Linda, especially that the elephants emit ultrasonic sounds and help reduce carbon dioxide by eating the leaves of fast-growing trees only. The fact that the ivory of the forest elephants is more desirable than the African elephant is a worry though. Poaching needs to be eradicated not the elephants.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Thank you very much, Cynthia. I appreciate your visit and the kind comment,

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Very well-researched and relevant article about a wildlife topic that is popular. Who doesn't love elephants? But who really knows much about them. I learned a lot, Linda. Thank you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

I agree, Bill. The forest elephant situation is sad and worrying. I hope it improves. The elephants are impressive and important animals.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on August 08, 2019:

What a shame that these majestic and very intelligent creatures are threatened. They suffer emotionally just as we do when dealing with loss. And the fact that there is a connection between the forest elephant and levels of carbon dioxide is just one more reason to protect them from us.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2019:

Thank you!

Mrs Umair from Jamke cheema,district sialkot,tehsil daska,punjab pakistan on August 08, 2019:

Very interesting!

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