A recent note published in the journal Oryx – the International Journal of Conservation by the African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) of IUCN, officially recognizes two species of African elephant: the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).

There is now sufficient genetic evidence that African elephants, formerly considered as a single species with two subspecies, are in fact two separate species. This publication marks the first time the AfESG, a group of scientists and technical experts focusing on the conservation and management of African elephants, has recognized the distinction.

This recognition will have policy and management implications for governments and relevant treaties, including CITES, which regulates international trade in elephants and their parts or products. The international commercial ivory trade is prohibited under CITES, and will not be impacted by this classification change.

Nothing in this new classification will or should reduce the protection provided to either of the African elephant species, under national or international law. 

WCS encourages all governments, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs to continue its efforts to ensure the conservation and recovery of African elephant populations of both species. There are several endangered or threatened populations of both species that warrant continued priority conservation actions, such as anti-poaching and protected area management, and governments must continue their vigilance in combatting ivory trafficking, both within the elephant range states, and in the transit countries across the globe where ivory passes on its long trajectory to destinations sometimes half a world away.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Fiona Maisels, a Conservation Scientist with WCS’s Africa Program, said: “Forest elephants in particular are more threatened with extinction than savanna elephants. They are considered “gardeners of the forest” – they are key seed dispersers for a number of large timber species, which in turn disproportionately sequester more carbon than smaller trees and thus contribute more to mitigating climate change. Both species play a critical role in ensuring the integrity of African ecosystems and their conservation must remain a priority.”