Science and conservation politics have finally agreed that Africa is home to two elephant species: the savanna and forest elephant. The debate lasted about two decades, with the politics of elephant conservation and the ivory trade delaying the decision, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has finally concluded its evaluation.
Africa’s most recognisable pachyderm is the savanna elephant, Loxodonta africana, the largest land mammal, reaching up to 4 metres at the shoulder. Their huge ears are the shape of the African continent. Their majesty, combined with the open habitat they roam, means that virtually every elephant photo we see is of the savanna species. One of my first memories is of a big savanna bull in the water above Murchison Falls in Uganda where I grew up. No African safari is complete without an elephant encounter.
But when I arrived in Gabon from England in 1989 to study for my doctorate, I got to know the forest elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis – a very different beast. There were an estimated 70,000 forest elephants in Gabon at that time living in the shadows of Africa’s rainforests. They are smaller than their savanna relatives – males rarely exceed 2.5 metres at the shoulder – but are essential to the survival of the rainforest (and its carbon storage) through their dispersal of seeds, delivery of compost and mineral-rich dung, and thinning of saplings. The forest elephant is a constant gardener.