The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is a forest-dwelling species of elephant found in the Congo Basin. It is the smallest of the three extant species of elephant, but also the third-largest living terrestrial animal. The African forest elephant and the African bush elephant were considered to be one species until genetic studies showed their relationship is distant.
The African forest elephant was once considered to be a subspecies, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, of the African elephant, together with the African bush elephant. DNA tests, however, indicated the two populations were much more genetically diverse than previously believed. In 2010, a genetic study confirmed they are separate species which diverged from each other an estimated two to seven million years ago.
The disputed pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, often assumed to be a separate species (Loxodonta pumilio) by cryptozoologists, are probably forest elephants whose diminutive size or early maturity is due to environmental conditions.
These forest-dwelling elephants are smaller and darker than their savanna relatives, the bush elephants, and have smaller and characteristically rounded ears. Compared to the bush elephant, the African forest elephant has a longer, narrower mandible and its ears are more rounded. Its tusks are straighter and harder and have a more yellow or brownish color. These strong tusks are used to push through the dense undergrowth of their habitat and bull elephants (mature males) are sometimes known to have exceptionally long tusks that reach almost to the ground. It also has a different number of toenails â" normally five on the forefoot and four on the hindfoot, like the Asian elephant but unlike the African bush elephant which normally has four toenails on the forefoot and three on the hindfoot. They also protect themselves from the sun by using sand.
A male African forest elephant rarely exceeds 2.5Â m (8Â ft) in height, considerably smaller than the bush species which is usually over 3 m (just under 10Â ft) and sometimes almost 4Â m (13Â ft) tall. L. cyclotis reportedly weighs around 2.7 tonnes (5,950Â lb), with the largest specimens attaining 6 tonnes (13,230Â lb). Pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, presumed to be a subgroup of L. cyclotis, have reportedly weighed as little as 900Â kg (1,980Â lb) as adults.
African forest elephants travel in smaller groups than other elephant species. A typical group size consists of 2 to 8 individuals. The average family unit is 3 to 5 individuals, usually made up of female relatives. Most family groups are a mother and several of her offspring, or several females and their offspring. Female offspring are philopatric, male offspring disperse at maturity. Unlike African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) do not usually interact with other family groups. Male African forest elephants tend to be solitary and only associate with other elephants during the mating season. Males have a dominance hierarchy based on size.
Females reach sexual maturity between the age of 8 and 12 years. The age of sexual maturity varies depending on the population density and nutrition available. Males generally pass puberty within the next year or two of females. The females are polyestrous, which means that they are capable of conceiving multiple times a year, which is a reason as to why they do not appear to have a breeding season. However there does appear to be a peak in conceptions during the two rainy seasons of the year. Generally, the female conceives after two or three matings. Although the female has plenty of room in her uterus to gestate twins, it is rare for twins to be conceived. The female African forest elephant has a pregnancy that lasts 22 months. Based on the maturity, fertility and gestation rates, the African forest elephants have the capabilities of increasing the speciesâ population size by 5% annually in ideal conditions.
Diet and ecological role
The African forest elephant is an herbivore, and commonly eats leaves, fruit, and bark, with occasional visits to mineral licks. It eats a high proportion of fruit, and is sometimes the only disperser of some tree species, such as Balanites wilsoniana and Omphalocarpum spp. Elephants have been referred to as "forest gardeners" due to their significant role in seed dispersal and maintaining plant diversity. In Afrotropical forests, many of these plant species are disseminated by forest elephants (L.cyclotis) sometimes at very long dispersal distances, a mutualism that matters to the population dynamics of plants and to the structure of forest tree communities. Moreover, the rate of seed germination of many forest plant species increases significantly after passage through an elephantâs gut. Analysis of 855 elephant dung piles suggested that forest elephants disperse more intact seeds than any other species or genus of large vertebrate in African forests, while GPS telemetry data showed that forest elephants regularly disperse seeds over unprecedented distances compared to other dispersers. However, the abundance of large vertebrates is rapidly declining, particularly in the tropics where over-hunting has left many forests structurally intact but devoid of large animals such as the African forest elephant. Our results suggest that the loss of forest elephants (and other large-bodied dispersers) may lead to a wave of recruitment failure among animal-dispersed tree species, and favor regeneration of the species-poor abiotically dispersed guild of trees. The African forest elephant was observed opportunistically over a period of seven years between 1984 and 1991 in lowland rain forest in the LopÃ© Reserve, Gabon. Diet of elephants at LopÃ© was diverse, including a minimum of 307 items. The bulk of the diet, in terms of number of species and quantities eaten, came from leaves and bark (70% of all items recorded). Trees represented 73% of the species fed upon. In contrast to savanna-living populations, fruit was an important part of the diet. Fruit of at least 72 species is eaten and the remains of at least one species of fruit was found in 82% of 311 fresh dung piles searched over a one-year period.
Threats and conservation
Humans have proved to be one of the greatest threats to African forest elephants. While there was a ban on the international trade in elephant products including ivory that was implemented in 1990, when the African elephant was added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the ivory trade continues to be the reason for countless elephant deaths. Another threat to this species is the prolific logging industry in the Central Africa. While selective logging, the more popular practice of extracting wood in Central Africa, may actually benefit forest elephants by creating more of their preferred habitat (secondary forest), the construction of roads used by the logging industry may have a detrimental effect by making these elephants more accessible to poachers as well as the bushmeat and ivory trade. Other threats include habitat loss through the conversion of land to agriculture and increasing competition for resources with growing human populations.
Late in the 20th century, conservation workers established a DNA identification system to trace the origin of poached ivory. Due to poaching to meet high demand for ivory, the African forest elephant population approached critical levels in the 1990s and early 2000s. Over several decades, numbers are estimated to have fallen from approximately 700,000 to less than 100,000, with about half of the remaining population in Gabon. In May 2013, Sudanese poachers invaded the Central African Republic's Dzanga Bai World Heritage Site and killed 26 elephants. Communications equipment, video cameras, and additional training of park guards were provided following the massacre to improve protection of the site. In September 2013, it was estimated that the forest elephant could become extinct within ten years. From mid-April to mid-June 2014, poachers killed 68 elephants in Garamba National Park, including young ones without tusks.
Civil unrest, human encroachment, and habit fragmentation leaves some elephants confined to small patches of forest without sufficient food. In January 2014, IFAW undertook a relocation project at the request of the CÃ´te d'Ivoire government, moving four elephants from Daloa to Azagny National Park.
These elephants are estimated to constitute up to one-third of the entire African Elephant population, but they have been poorly studied because of the difficulty in observing them through the dense vegetation that makes up their habitat. Forest elephant populations are decreasing at an alarming rate, falling more than 50 percent in the last 9 years, and poaching is the primary cause. Because of the dense vegetation in which they live, it is difficult to observe their population, but thermal imaging is making observing these animals much easier. Thermal imaging studies can increase our understanding of the elephants' ecology and behavior, these methods will also give the scientific community a more accurate estimate of the elephant species' numbers. Using thermal imaging, scientists observed interactions among the species and with other species in the night. With the Elephants unable to see, it gave them insights into how they negotiate their environment using only their hearing and olfactory senses. They also appeared to be much more active sexually during night compared to the day, which was unexpected
- IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG): "Statement on the Taxonomy of extant Loxodonta" (February 2006).
- BBC Wildlife Finder - video clips from the BBC archive
- ARKive - Images and movies of the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)
- PBS Nature: Tracking Forest Elephants
- Forest Elephant Program
- Elephant Information Repository - An in-depth resource on elephants
- The Elephant Listening Project - Information on forest elephants and their vocalizations.
- African Forest Elephant | AWF - Forest elephant photos and facts