Forest Elephants, A Species Apart

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In December 2010, scientists from Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of York in Britain announced their finding that the African savanna elephant and the forest elephant are distinct species, having been largely separated for 2 million to 7 million years.  The forest elephant is found in the vast Congo Basin, which stretches across six countries:  Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.  The determination that they are separate species came from DNA analysis of the modern-day pachyderms — savanna, forest and Asian elephants — and their extinct ancestors — the wooly mammoth and mastodon. The highlights of their study can be found here.

I was fortunate to observe several forest elephants on my recent trip to Republic of Congo.  What an experience!  With rounder ears and slim, straight tusks, the smaller forest elephant has some obvious physical differences.  In addition, their eyes are a light brown, as is the case of most of the forest-dwelling animals in the dense rain forest.  The forest elephant lives in very small groups, unlike the vast herds savanna elephants occupy.  Their world is unbelievably impenetrable.  The forest covers an area larger than Alaska, with few natural openings.  With ample food and water throughout this ecosystem, they live a solitary life, most of them never setting eyes on a human being.   An elephant’s home range can be nearly 800 square miles.  As a result, they are shy and skittish when sensing a “foreign” presence.  The elephants we spotted kept their distance, usually widening that distance considerably once they picked up our scent.

Because their world is so remote and inaccessible, little is known about the habits of forest elephants.  What we do know, and in spite of their isolation, poaching is taking an enormous toll on them.  Heavily militarized groups  from Sudan and Uganda have slaughtered hundreds of forest elephants across CAR, Cameroon, Gabon and DRC.  The WCS reports that the  in Gabon alone, the forest elephant population has been halved in the past decade.

Slipping into their world for just a week was a special privilege.  In addition to the forest elephant, we encountered western lowland gorillas and wild chimpanzees.  Sitings were infrequent and required trekking through very dense and insect-infested, damp rain forest.  One would think that this habitat would protect them from the evils of the outside world.  But the barriers are breaking down.  The demand for ivory is penetrating the impenetrable; and ivory carvers favor the  tusks of forest elephants as they are softer and easier to shape.  Logging and mineral extraction operations also are bringing more human “commerce” into the entire Congo Basin.  Is there time to get to know this “new” species of elephant?  . . .to be continued. . .