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PSI scientist argues that African elephants are two distinct species

African Elephant in Addo National Park, South Africa
African Elephant in Addo National Park, South Africa

Will it prompt new conservation strategies?

Puget Sound Institute research scientist Nick Georgiadis was quoted recently in The Guardian about increasing evidence that African elephants should be divided into two species. Georgiadis and other scientists argue that this divide creates an urgent need to reassess elephant conservation strategies.

Georgiadis is co-author of a paper in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences that makes the case for splitting savannah-dwelling elephants (Loxodonta africana) from those living in forested areas (Loxodonta cyclotis). “To my knowledge, all the evidence, now a very large amount, supports two [African elephant] species, and no evidence supports one,” Georgiadis told The Guardian. “There never was any objective evidence supporting one species, just a few subjective preferences that became dogma.”

Governments and some major conservation groups currently see the elephants as sub-species, but some scientists argue that this is “condemning” the forest elephant to possible extinction. While both proposed species have suffered from poaching due to the illegal ivory trade, forest elephants have declined faster and are far more endangered. According to The Guardian:

“At least a couple of hundred thousand forest elephants were lost between 2002-2013 to the tune of at least sixty a day, or one every twenty minutes, day and night,” said Fiona Maisels head of the forest elephant study with the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2014. “By the time you eat breakfast, another elephant has been slaughtered to produce trinkets for the ivory market.”

Yet conservation efforts have been largely tilted, even now, towards the more famous savanna elephant. Currently there is a massive effort underway – known as the Great Elephant Survey – to survey the continent’s savanna elephant populations. But no similar large-scale conservation effort is focusing on forest elephants. By inhabiting rainforest landscapes, for elephants are much more difficult to survey or study. But they also may suffer from the fact that conservationists simply don’t view these animals as distinct.

The paper’s authors say a combination of factors, from DNA analysis to morphological variations offer abundant grounds for establishing two species, but that failure to recognize the division is due to factors “unrelated to the scientific evidence.” They propose that governments begin managing forest and savanna elephant populations separately in anticipation of formal species designation.

Georgiadis is the former director of Mpala Research Center, a facility for ecosystem research, conservation, and education in northern Kenya. He is the creator of the African Elephant Genetics Survey which began measuring genetic differences between African elephants in 1983. He is currently a research scientist at the  Puget Sound Institute focusing on ecosystem-based management of large scale ecosystems such as Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

Read the full article in The Guardian: “Scientists: we are ‘condemning’ forest elephants by ignoring evidence”.