FOREST ELEPHANTS - Loxodonta cyclotis

Forest elephants are ancestral to the more familiar savannah elephants of east and southern Africa, with a unique ecology and DNA that identifies them as a distinct species. They are also the only elephant left on earth who's populations are still mostly intact, free ranging, and largely unrestricted - but this is changing.

From an estimated population size of over 2 million when Europeans first ventured into West and Central Africa, today we have a population of only about 100,000 forest elephants, mostly living in the forests of Gabon.

Download a PDF with essential facts about forest elephants.

Forest elephants are now accepted as a unique species of elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), distinct from their better-known cousin, the African savannah (or bush) elephant (L. africana). Forest elephants are smaller in size, with more rounded ears, and straighter, thinner tusks. Family groups may be smaller, but otherwise their social structure and life history appear to be similar to savannah elephants. DNA analysis has recently shown that African savannah and forest elephants are genetically distinct, reinforcing the very different ecology of forest elephants (more on the Elephant Ecology page).

Typical elephant family of one mature female and three dependant offspring

© Andrea Turkalo

A typical basic social grouping of forest elephants: A mature female with three dependent offspring. Females give birth about every four years, depending on resources. The oldest daughter in this photograph is old enough to begin breeding.

Elephants are the largest of all terrestrial mammals and the three extant species (the two African species plus the asian elephant, Elephas maximus) share many life-history characteristics. Thy have a natural life span of 60-70 years and mature slowly, reaching puberty in their early teens. Few offspring are produced per female lifetime -- up to 12 for a female African savannah elephant (lifetime reproductive data has not been published for forest elephants, but are probably similar).

Forest elephants are found in the rainforests of the Congo Basin of Central Africa and in small, isolated populations in West Africa. Surprisingly little is known about the species. They are difficult to census in the dense rainforest habitat and we don't even have very accurate estimates of how many exist in those forests (estiimates now range from 60,000-150,000). Poaching is certainly on the increase, and perhaps as much as 10% of the population is being killed each year - but these numbers too are guesses. The threats to forest elephants are increasing every year. Logging operations are on the increase as the revenue from off-shore oil fields decreases and the relative risk of poaching elephants may be less in the poorly protected vastness of the Congo forest than in the countries of east and southern Africa.