Bethan Morgan, Ph.D., and Shifra Goldenberg, Ph.D., explore the world of these Critically Endangered elephants.*
Cameroon’s Ebo forest is one of the last remaining sites inhabited by forest elephants in the entire Gulf of Guinea biodiversity hotspot—the area of tropical Central Africa to the northwest of the Congo basin. Since we first established trail cameras in the forest in 2016, we have gathered a wealth of evidence of African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis presence, despite the fact that the cameras are currently restricted to the relatively small area (approximately 40 square kilometers, or roughly 15 square miles) of the Ebo gorilla range. These images capture family groups, lone bulls (males), and bull groups, indicating there is much to learn about Ebo elephant interactions with one another and with their environment. In the years to come, we are planning to expand this camera network to cover the whole approximately 1,000-square kilometer (386-squaremile) forest, as part of a planned doctoral study by a talented young Cameroon biologist working on our team.
In tandem with this trail camera extension, we are planning to look in detail at the captured images to see if we can examine characteristics such as group size, age and sex structure, and cohesiveness. For decades, researchers have used obvious physical characteristics such as size, scars, and cuts to their ears to identify individual elephants and follow them over time, which has provided important insights into their societies. However, most research of African elephants has focused on savanna elephants, which are more widespread and found in habitats more conducive to observation. Much of what we know of forest elephants is from individual-based monitoring in the treeless swampy bais of the Congo basin, where the openness has allowed elephants to be observed from a distance. It remains challenging to study them in the forest, but we hope that applying individual-based monitoring with our expanded camera grid in the forest may allow us to contribute to collective understanding of forest elephant populations and support conservation planning.
Until March 2021, African elephants were treated as a single species, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, the global list of threatened species. This combined status meant that the unique challenges facing the two species were not sufficiently highlighted. Biologists have long believed that African savanna elephants and African forest elephants should be treated as separate species, due to significant differences in morphology, ecology, behavior, and genetics, and in 2021 the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group announced the splitting of African elephants into two separate species: Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis. The most recent Red List assessment followed this distinction, and designated African forest elephants L. cyclotis as Critically Endangered, underlining their critical conservation situation, and therefore the importance of protecting and documenting all remaining populations.
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