Africa is once again on alert with its two elephant species populations being placed on the endangered and critically endangered list.
The African forest elephant is now listed as critically endangered while the African savanna elephant has been listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species due to poaching and loss of habitat.
The IUCN warns that although the population of Africa’s savanna elephants has improved, they are still in danger, particularly from the clamour for land by agricultural developments.
The March 25 update places African forest elephants among 6,811 species facing extremely high risk of extinction.
It is hoped this red alert will lead to greater conservation actions for both species which are regarded as a keystone species, due to the critical role they play in the ecosystem. Also known as “ecosystem engineers,” elephants maintain their habitats in many ways, for example, during the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes that animals can drink from.
Elephants are also considered the “gardeners of the forest,” as they help distribute seeds as they eat the fruit and vegetation and disperse it across vast areas.
Before the latest update, African elephants were listed as merely “vulnerable”. They were also treated as a single species. This is the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the IUCN Red List, following the emergence of new genetic evidence.
The IUCN Red List now includes 134,425 species of which 37,480 are threatened with extinction.
The latest IUCN assessments highlight broad decline in African elephant numbers across the continent. The number of African forest elephants fell by more than 86 percent over a period of 31 years, while the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60 percent over the last 50 years.
Both species suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011. The conversion of habitats, agricultural and other land uses, is a significant threat.
The 2016 IUCN African Elephant Status Report which provides the most recent reliable estimate of the continental population of the two species combined, puts their numbers at 415,000.
IUCN Director General, Bruno Oberle, said Africa needed to pay more attention to persistent poaching and habitat loss. “We must put an end to poaching and ensure sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savanna elephants is conserved,” said Dr Oberle.
Kenya Wildlife Service acting director for biodiversity, research and planning, Dr Patrick Omondi, said Kenya’s population, which is the African savannah elephant had been elevated to the list of “endangered species” from its previous listing of being just “vulnerable”.
“Elephant population has been recovering following government efforts to bump up security and anti-poaching measures. Our main challenge now sits in loss of elephant corridors and human wildlife conflict,” he said.
IUCN said that despite the declining trend of both African elephant species, the assessments also highlight the impact of successful conservation efforts.
“Anti-poaching measures, with more supportive legislation and land use planning to foster human-wildlife coexistence, have been key to successful elephant conservation. Some forest elephants have stabilised in well-managed conservation areas in Gabon and the Congo,” IUCN said.
“Savanna elephant numbers have also been stable or growing for decades in Okavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, with the largest subpopulation of the species."