How do humans interact with elephants

African elephants

Now it's official: the African forest elephant is critically endangered. In March 2021, the IUCN updated the International Red List of Endangered Species - and classified the African forest elephant in the highest threat category. The African savannah elephant follows him closely in the second highest category "endangered".

How did this appalling reassessment come about? Forest and savanna elephants have so far been treated as two subspecies of the African elephant by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and therefore jointly assessed as a single species. According to the IUCN status report from 2016, the total population of African elephants comprises around 415,000 animals, 100,000 fewer than in 2006. That is a decrease of about a fifth.

The common status of the African elephants in the Red List was "endangered". However, the common classification levels out the fact that the regional populations of forest and savanna elephants are threatened to different degrees. In addition, scientists have long recognized forest and savanna elephants as separate species - one more reason to assess and protect the stocks independently of one another.

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Last Rescue: Critically Endangered

While the savannah elephant is found in many sub-Saharan countries in Africa and some - not all - of its populations are stable or even increasing, the forest elephant lives exclusively in the rainforests of central and west Africa. His situation is dire.

According to estimates and projections, the total population of African forest elephants was between 2002 and 2011 decreased by around 62 percent within just under ten years. In absolute terms, this means: While there were 270,000 forest elephants in 2002, in 2011 there were fewer than 100,000. Their number continued to decrease in the years that followed. According to the Red List, the forest elephant population collapsed by more than 86 percent within 31 years. According to projections, there were only 75,000 forest elephants in Africa in 2018. These numbers are even more devastating when you consider that Forest elephants reproduce more slowly than other elephant species. The stocks would take several decades or even centuries to recover. If we don't act now, it may soon be forever too late.

But things are not going well with the African savannah elephant either. From now on it is considered to be endangered. The total population of the savannah elephant has shrunk by at least 60 percent within 50 years - even if some populations, especially in southern Africa, are increasing.

The decision of the IUCN to consider the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant separately takes this development into account and above all makes the devastating situation of the forest elephant not only visible, but also official.

The WWF welcomes this decision, because in order to be able to protect the savannah elephant and the forest elephant, the individual threat factors must be combated in a targeted manner.

In addition, the Red List is the basis for setting priorities in species protection. Whether it's raising funds and donations or mobilizing political decision-makers - the Red List is a powerful argumentation aid for nature conservationists and species conservationists. It may sound depressing, but for many species "critically endangered" status is the last resort.

Who is the greatest The savannah elephant!

Bulls of the African savannah elephants reach a shoulder height of up to four meters and a length of up to 7.5 meters. This makes the savannah elephant the largest land creature on earth - larger than the Asian elephant and larger than the African forest elephant.

In complex social associations led by elephant cows, savannah elephants populate southern and eastern Africa and in some cases also the savannahs south of the Sahel region of Central Africa.

They occur in very different habitats, but clearly prefer grasslands, scrublands and dry forests. Typically, they spend more than 17 hours a day foraging for food. In this way they keep shrubs short and contribute to the continued existence of grasslands - and to Preservation of many animal species that feed on grasses. With their dung, they spread seeds over a large area, the seeds of many plants are even only spread by the savannah elephants. The dung itself, in turn, is a habitat for countless invertebrates. In other words: The savannah elephant is irreplaceable for a balanced ecosystem.

Forest elephants, the somewhat smaller colossi

Forest elephants are significantly smaller and more compact than savannah elephants. Sure, after all, they have to be able to move around in the dense jungle. Their characteristic round ears are also not as big as those of their relatives in the savannah, and their tusks point downwards, not forwards. In search of food, smaller family groups of a maximum of two or three females wander through the tropical rainforests of Central and West Africa with their young or solitary bulls many kilometers a day.

A forest elephant devours kilos of fruit and plant material every day. In addition, forest elephants need certain trace elements for digestion, which they find in the mineral-rich soils of swampy forest clearings. These clearings, so-called Bais, are also places of social interaction: Not only do the families of the forest elephants gather there, they are also meeting points for other large mammals.

In the forest ecosystem the forest elephants play a key role: With their dung, they spread plant seeds within a radius of more than 50 kilometers, with a rate of up to 346 seeds per square kilometer per day. This makes the African forest elephant the most effective seed disperser in the tropics!

And not only that: on their forays through the dense vegetation they create a network of elephant paths; they trample down undergrowth and cut down one or the other smaller tree. As a result, they clear the forest and at the same time supply it with important nutrients through their excretions.

Forest elephant protection is climate protection

The contribution that forest elephants make to protecting biodiversity is essential. What very few people know: Forest elephants also contribute to climate protection! How do you do it? Because they constantly thin out smaller tree species as they migrate through the undergrowth, larger tree species with a higher biomass can grow better. All trees bind carbon, but the larger the tree, the more carbon it can store. Forest elephants therefore provide more storage capacity for the rainforest and do so massively: Scientists assume that without forest elephants seven percent of the biomass would disappear - and the central and west African rainforests could bind around three billion tons less carbon.

How complex and at the same time fragile this system is can be seen from two tree species that can store a particularly large amount of carbon: Autranella congolensis and Baillonella toxisperma. The seeds of these trees have a hard shell, they germinate much better when they are eaten by the forest elephant, softened by its gastric fluid and excreted again. Because the number of forest elephants has decreased rapidly, so are Autranella congolensis and Baillonella toxisperma threatened. To make matters worse, both trees are still felled because of their heavy, hard wood - known as mukulungu and moabi. With fatal consequences: The fruits of the trees and the fat obtained from their seeds play an important role in the nutrition of the local population.

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What threatens the African elephants?

Their tusks are their undoing: In the savannah and forest elephants, both male and female animals have tusks, which grow their entire life and can become very heavy. The tusks of the savannah elephants are more curved and slightly thicker than those of the forest elephants. But the ivory of the forest elephants is denser, more compact - and easier to work with. That is why it is more valuable and particularly sought after by poachers.

Ivory has been processed into art and luxury objects for thousands of years. The demand, which continues to this day and is mainly driven from Asia, has led to massive animal declines over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century, several million elephants are said to have migrated through Africa, today there are only a few hundred thousands, with a falling trend.

Between 1979 and 1989 alone, the population of around 1.3 million animals was decimated to less than half: within just ten years, the continent is estimated to have lost 700,000 to 800,000 of its elephants.

In the meantime, an extremely unscrupulous, professional wildlife mafia has established itself. This criminal network of often heavily armed poachers, smugglers and traders is still killing up to 20,000 elephants per year in Africa. Across Africa, five to six out of ten elephants found dead did not die of natural causes, in Central Africa even eight out of ten - the pressure of poaching is therefore particularly heavy on forest elephants.

The Covid-19 pandemic makes it even more difficult for the protected areas in many places to protect the wild animal populations well. Mainly due to the lack of tourism, there is a lack of important sources of income.

Not only the tusks, but also the habitats of the elephants arouse desires. In large parts of their area of ​​distribution there are valuable woods, mineral resources and petroleum.

The result: Previously remote regions are opened up, transport routes cut up and destroy the living space - In the period from 2002 to 2011 alone, 30 percent of the forest elephant's habitat was lost as a result of such interventions. The enormous population growth in Africa is also causing problems for the elephant. Their ancestral habitats are converted into arable and pasture areas, the proximity of elephants and humans leads to so-called human-wildlife conflicts. The fact that the elephants act particularly aggressively in these conflicts is due to poaching, theirs complex social systems destroyed and the animals traumatized.

The fragmentation of their habitat It also makes it difficult for elephants to migrate from particularly densely populated areas to less densely populated regions. While many of the elephant populations are rapidly declining and even disappearing altogether - especially those of the forest elephants - some populations of the savannah elephant are growing in southern and eastern Africa. With a simultaneous loss of habitat, overpopulations can arise that damage the vegetation and have a negative impact on biodiversity.

The effects of the Climate crisis noticeable. While savannah elephants suffer from severe droughts in parts of their range, fewer fruits grow in the rainforests, which the forest elephants depend on.

What is the WWF doing to protect African elephants?

Above all, it is important to stop the bloody business with ivory - along the entire retail chain: Poaching must be combated locally, the illegal trade organized across borders must be prevented, and demand, especially in China, Vietnam and Thailand, must be curbed. In addition, the WWF is committed to the preservation of contiguous habitats and develops strategies for elephant-friendly land use Reduce human-animal conflicts.

These are just four of the many projects the WWF is fighting for the survival of African elephants. Projects that give hope that the forest and savannah elephants can continue to inhabit their ancestral habitats in Africa in the future.

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