In the last decade, more than half of all forest elephants have been slaughtered for their market-precious ivory. Without action, this species will go extinct within our lifetime.
But it’s hard to garner support for a species many do not know exists. Today the U.S. government and several conservation groups fail to recognize the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) as a distinct species from the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta Africana) despite scientific evidence.
“By not recognizing two species, these organizations may be condemning the African forest elephant to extinction,” said Professor of Animal Sciences Alfred Roca (GNDP/CGRH). “The time for governments and conservation agencies to recognize two species of elephant in Africa is long past due.”
In a literature review, published in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, Roca chronicled 15 years of genomic and morphological (physical) studies that confirm two species of African elephants, which are as evolutionary distinct as humans and chimpanzees.
This review prompted the Center for Biological Diversity, a public interest environmental organization, to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on June 10 to reclassify of African elephants from one threatened species to two endangered species.
While elephants remain listed as threatened, the U.S. is able to import some ivory and elephant parts that may have been sourced illegally. The U.S. has one of the largest domestic ivory markets but lacks internal mechanisms to ensure elephant products are legal.
Reclassifying the two species as endangered would help stop illegal imports. It would also provide additional funding for elephant conservation and bring national and international attention to the current elephant crisis.
“There’s now no question that African elephants are two distinct species that should be managed according to their distinct needs,” said Tara Easter, a scientist at the Center, said in a news release. “Both forest elephants and savannah elephants are vanishing quickly, so we must give them the stronger protections provided by endangered status or risk losing these intelligent and magnificent animals forever.”
On July 29, 2015, the FWS proposed a revision to the Endangered Species Act that would create a “nearly complete ban” on commercial elephant ivory trade in the U.S.
At a news conference with Kenyan President Kenyatta at the State House, President Obama said, “Our countries are also close partners in the fight against poachers and traffickers that threaten Kenya’s world-famous wildlife. The United States has a ban already on the commercial import of elephant ivory. I can announce that we’re proposing a new rule that bans the sale of virtually all ivory across our state lines, which will eliminate the market for illegal ivory in the United States.”
Still, poachers kill, on average, one elephant every 15 minutes. Fewer than 100,000 forest elephants and 400,000 savannah elephants remain.
This article originally appeared on the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology website.