Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The different African elephant species


It has been believed for years that there was only one African elephant species, the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the small forest elephant was a subspecies. It was only some years ago that the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) was finally considered as another African elephant species, when research had found that these two elephants are genetically distinct from one another.

I say finally, because by recognizing their status as species and not as subspecies, one can best manage a designed elephant conservation strategy. Forest elephants are ecologically, socially, morphologically and genetically different to savanna elephants, and that´s why a strategy particularly designed is needed. The decline of the forest elephant population represents the decline of an entire endangered species, and not just of a sub-population.

So now we have two recognized African elephant species, the forest and the savanna elephants; but really? Two species? what about the Congo Pygmy elephants, have you ever heard about them?

A bit of history:

the first supposed pygmy elephant was evidenced in a Zoo in Germany (Hamburg Zoo) and then moved to New York, but the authors described it as a very small forest elephant found in Congo and South Western Uganda.

The zoo elephant was a young male called Congo and described by Noack (1906) as Elephas africanus pumilio, later known as Loxodonta pumilio or fransseni. Congo was a small young male with very round ears that reminded a lot of the recently known to science forest elephant (described at the beginning of the 20th century by Matschie, 1900)1. Ever since their discovery, the pygmy elephant status has been debated. Some scientists have supported their existence, most haven´t.

Although the disputed pygmy elephants of the Congo basin are thought to be another separate species by cryptozoologists, it is unanimously believed that those are actually forest elephants.

One explanation to why scientists thought to have found a different species of elephants back in the 20th century could be that they were at that time unfamiliar with the growth patterns and social structure of elephants and thus what they described to be a herd of very small elephants, was actually a herd where the big matriarch had died and thus there remained young females and calves.

There are also voices that claim that this unusually small size of the forest elephants that made the scientists believe in the existence of a third species was due to an early maturity as a result of environmental conditions.

The scientists conclude that the specific taxon Loxodonta pumilio (or Loxodonta fransseni) should be abandoned; so to the question, yes, there are two different African elephant species: savanna and forest elephants.

Congo, a presumed pygmy elephant, now classified as Loxodonta cyclotis (African forest elephant).

 How different are they?

The forest elephants are smaller and thus lighter. Their skin is smoother, with longer hairs (mostly on their trunks) and long eyelashes, that protect their eyes while they walk through the dense forest. Their ears are rounder (cycle=round, otis=ear), the savanna elephant ears have the African continent shape. Like the savanna elephants, both sexes have tusks, but those of the forest species are more or less straight and thinner. The forest elephants have 5 toenails on the front feet and 4 on the hind feet (like the Asian elephants), while the savanna elephants have 4 on the front feet and 3 on the back.

The forest elephants live in smaller family groups (and often more disperse) than savanna elephants and have a different diet, the latter´s consisting basically of grass, whereas the forest elephants eat more browse, tree leaves and fruits.

What´s their geographical range?

As their name suggests, the African forest elephants live in Africa’s forests. While they once inhabited a larger range, they now are confined to the tropical forests of Equatorial West and Central Africa.

The geographical range of the African savanna elephants is wider, but in some areas their distribution overlaps with that of the forest elephants in Central and Eastern Africa. Some scientists talk about “hybrid zones” facilitated by poaching and habitat modifications, and defend the theory that these species can interbreed over more than one generation, which demonstrates that hybrids are fertile2.

Which African elephant species do we see in Chimp&See?

In almost every Chimp&See site where we have found elephants, we have seen forest elephants. But due to that territory overlapping there have been some sites where the elephants weren´t so small anymore. I am referring to Green Snowflake and Restless Star, where both species coexist, whose range overlap and where both species may be inter breeding, and to Soaring Leaf, where we have seen savanna elephants.

Check the Chimp&See Loxodonta africana :

The big Gabela, Green Snowflake (how many front toenails can you count?) 

and compare them to the Chimp&See Loxodonta cyclotis:

Sahndra, Twin Oaks 

Tayo, Twin Oaks

Jino, Green Toadstool 

If you want to see more awesome elephant videos, check our Elephant Discussion Board. Please feel free to post any comment or anything that you want to know about elephants in that board! 



1.      1. Groves, C. P., & Grubb, P. (2000). Are there Pygmy Elephants?. Elephant, 2(4), 8-10. Doi: 10.22237/elephant/1521732181

       2. Mondol, Samrat & Moltke, Ida & Hart, John & Keigwin, Michael & Brown, Lisa & Stephens, Matthew & Wasser, Samuel. (2015). New evidence for hybrid zones of forest and savanna elephants in Central and West Africa. Molecular ecology. 24. 10.1111/mec.13472





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