Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-r5zm4 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-15T07:37:54.127Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

African forest and savannah elephants treated as separate species

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2021

John Hart
AfESG Taxonomy Task Force Convenor, Frankfurt Zoological Society, TL2 Project, Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Kathleen Gobush
AfESG Red List Lead, Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Fiona Maisels
Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA, and Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK
Sam Wasser
Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Benson Okita-Ouma
AfESG Co-Chair, Save the Elephants, Nairobi, Kenya
Rob Slotow
AfESG Co-Chair, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. E-mail


Conservation News
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution license CC BY 4.0.
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Fauna & Flora International

The African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) of IUCN will now treat African elephants as two species: the forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis and the savannah elephant Loxodonta africana. This will be reflected in IUCN's Red List assessment update for African elephants, and in the next iteration of the African Elephant Status Report, both to be published in 2021. This concurs with Wilson & Reader (Mammal Species of the World, 2005), the primary IUCN reference on mammalian taxonomy, Wittemyer (in Handbook of the Mammals of the World, 2011), and Tassy & Shoshani (in Mammals of Africa, 2013).

The 2019 AfESG members' meeting considered morphological, genetic, reproductive, ecological and behavioural evidence, and a commissioned study by Kim & Wasser ( that specifically assessed extent and distribution of genetic hybridization. Hybrid individuals occur infrequently, at a few locations. The only exception is the hybrid hotspot along the border between The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, thought to be a consequence of human pressure having pushed individual elephants into the range of the other species.

Species-specific national and regional assessments of population status and trends are needed. In separating the two species, the AfESG highlights three consequences. Firstly, L. cyclotis is listed in CITES Appendices under L. africana ( This could (1) be maintained; (2) changed to Loxodonta spp., as is the case for monk seals (Monachus spp.), under Appendix I or II (depending on range state), which would allow inclusion of hybrid elephants and unclassified populations; or (3) a Party could request an updated reference in CITES nomenclature to recognize both species. Under CITES rules, if L. africana were split into L. africana and L. cyclotis, all L. cyclotis would remain on Appendix I (as only some populations of L. africana are currently on Appendix II, with specific annotations). An appropriate approach should be identified for the regional and continental treatment of other African elephant issues, such as cross-border movements.

Secondly, the Red List assessments provide species-specific lists of range states, based on the best current information. However, legislative nomenclature varies by country. The two-species listing will support harmonization of nomenclature in national legislation, and focus attention on the differing management and conservation issues faced by the two species. Thirdly, there may be uncertainty as to whether one or both species occur in a country. The two-species listing will encourage the genetic investigation of hitherto taxonomically undefined populations, to examine the importance and dynamics of hybridization. The AfESG has established a taxonomy task force to develop supporting documentation for the economic, political, and conservation implications of the two-species listing of the African elephant. It will further recommend support for range states in addressing the implications identified.