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Okay, Really. How Many Species of African Elephants Are There, and Why Does It Matter?

You might already know that African elephants are considered “threatened,” largely due to poaching and the ivory trade. But you may not know that two different species comprise African elephants: Savanna and forest. Forest elephants are smaller than their cousins, sporting straighter tusks and rounder ears. Science has confirmed their differences again and again—not just on a level of physical appearance but on a genetic level, too. In fact, their degree of difference is akin to that of Asian elephants and mammoths; their evolutionary trees split at around the same time. Even so, they’re often considered one species, or at least subspecies of each other.

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Okay, you might be thinking. Well, that’s interesting, but why does it matter?

I’m glad you asked. Because it makes all the difference in the world.

Implications of Two Separate Species

Like I said, African elephants are “threatened,” with fewer than 500,000 African elephants left. Now here’s the catch: there are only 500,000 African elephants when you lump the two species together. Tease them apart, and you’ll find that under 100,000 forest elephants and 400,000 Savanna elephants are still around.

Yikes! Can you see how that’s a problem now? The situation appears far less dire than it really is. As scientist Tara Easter points out, “If we continue to classify them as one species, [the extinction of forest elephants] would only be seen as losing populations of a species that may still occur in large numbers elsewhere.” The forest elephants need our help, and they can only receive that assistance if people realize they are at risk in the first place.

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That’s not the only reason they need separation. Habitats, poaching, roles in the ecosystem—all that needs to be addressed on an individual, separate basis because the pressures they face may not be exactly the same. In order to do that, we need to stop categorizing them as the same species.

Why That Isn’t Happening

However, some are still not completely convinced that they’re so different, namely because they can mate and produce fertile offspring, something two species supposedly can’t do (though evidence has shown that’s not entirely true; second generation reproduction isn’t impossible, but it’s much more difficult—which is something we’ve witnessed in the two species of elephants).

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Some, including conservation organizations, also believe that separating them into two species will not do much good. They argue that the elephant crisis among governments is already complicated enough as it is. But by continuing to resist splitting the species, organizations and governments are leading forest elephants along the path to their extinction.

A Real-Life Consequence

Currently, baby elephants in Africa are being shipped off to China to serve as circus performers and live a life of slavery. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is allowing this to happen, thinking that “a few hundred won’t hurt.” This is because they’re combining both species into one population, working under the false assumption that they’re the same. But this poses a serious gamble; individual species populations may not be as strong as they think. Take a stand by signing a petition, urging the CITES Secretariat to reconsider his decision!

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A. Stout is a Whovian, Potterhead, study abroad alumna, and animal lover. A native to West Michigan, she dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world.