Above: Forest elephants meeting. Courtesy Elephant Protection Initiative

Published: The East African Nation newspaper: 12-18 February 2022

Elephant Protection Initiative says species could save itself by leading carbon footprint turnaround

Very few people have seen an African forest elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis. Living in the dense rainforests of the central African nations which are mostly politically unstable and high on the poverty index, Africa’s little-known forest elephants only came to light at the turn of the millennium that caste them as a separate species from the African savannah elephant, Loxodonta africana. Scientists studying the genetics of the two say they are as different as lions are to tigers.

That means, we now have three species of elephants – the African forest, African savannah and the Indian. The two African species diverged about 2.6 million years ago.

The forest elephant is much smaller than the savannah elephant, has oval-shaped ears with straighter downward pointing tusks unlike the savannah elephant’s outward curving tusks.

Family oforest elephants. Courtesy EPI Martin Middlebrook

Of the roughly 500,000 elephants in Africa today (compared to 10 million in 1900), forest elephants number 150,000, the rest being savanna elephants. The forest elephants are in the dense forests of Nigeria, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Cameroon. The savanna elephants are in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.

Before 2021, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) had treated the African elephant as a single species and listed it ‘Vulnerable’. Its recent update of the Red List of Threatened Species has the African forest elephant now listed as Critically Endangered (that is one step away from being listed as extinct in the wild) and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) as Endangered.

The Realm of the world’s most endangered elephant

The forest elephant lives in much more dangerous territory than the savannah and Asian elephants in terms of human threats from wars, logging, mining, development and poaching. At a recent presentation by the Elephant Protection Initiative comprising of 21 African countries determined to save their elephants, the big thing about the little-known forest elephant (and other species) is that it can become a game changer on the economic front. Ralph Chami, financial economist with the International Monitory Fund (IMF) explains.

 “The carbon value of a single forest elephant to sequester carbon is worth USD 1.75 million. And the world is in dire need of carbon sinks,” states the financial guru.

“The country can sell off the carbon services of these elephants to offset their (carbon producers mostly from the developed industrial countries) carbon footprint.” The money of course must reach the local communities and the forest rangers and researchers who are the forest stewards by virtue of their close association with the forest.

According to Chami, it’s a win-win-win situation.

Nature wins because she in her indigenous rainforests, is capturing carbon, the main culprit in global warming

The government wins because it receives revenue from the protected areas (protected areas and national parks).

Finally, the businesses who want to offset their carbon footprint.

“Conservation is then seen as a source of capital and not a cost,” emphasises the financial wizard.

Central to the health of the rainforest is the forest elephant that helps fight climate change by contributing significantly to natural carbon capture.

Elephant on Mt Elgon by Mount Elgon Elephant Project in Kenya Scout

Biologists are only now bringing to light this extraordinary process.

Chami writes: As African forest elephants make their way through the rainforests and forage for food, they thin out young trees that are competing for space, water, and light—by stepping on some and consuming others. .. The trees that are left behind … grow taller and larger …wherever forest elephants roam.

These trees—which biologists call late-succession trees—store more carbon in their biomass and hence forest elephants actually increase the amount of carbon stored by the rainforest by tilting the biological balance in favor of certain types of trees. In short, elephants are environmental engineers.

“Elephant countries can then translate the language of science into the market place,” he explains. “And rural economies can develop on the back of elephant conservation.”

It raises the bar in conservation continues Chami. When a rural poor person realizes that a live elephant is worth far more than a dead elephant, s/he is not tempted to poach or support poachers. A live elephant’s eco-services at current rate of USD 1.75 million compared to one killed for its tusks at USD 40,000 is a no-brainer.

Even more exciting regarding the financial benefits of an elephant’s role in the carbon market is that it even outstrips earning from tourism, especially in today’s volatile times courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, warns Lee White, Gabon’s minister of environment, all this is fine but one has to be careful of ‘carbon cowboys’ or ‘carbon bandits’ manipulating figures to fatten their pockets.

A former elephant scientist and now a minister in Gabon that boasts the largest population of forest elephants at 95,000 from 60,000 two decades ago (and 35,000 gorillas), White attributes this transformation to the ‘incredible political will’.

Perhaps, the rest of Africa will follow.

Savanna Elephants crossing Ewaso Nyiro Samburu National Reserve. Couresy Jill Cohen

Forest Elephants in African Countries


Out of Nigeria’s 300 forest elephants, Omo Valley is home to 100 forest elephants including chimpanzees. But all this may soon disappear as the forest is increasingly fragmented due to heavily logging, cocoa farms, increasing population (of people), clearing of virgin forest for settlement and poachers better equipped with guns than the rangers.

The forest elephants are rarely seen in the 13,000-square-kilometre nature reserve. If nothing is done soon, the forest elephants will be gone in the next ten years.


In 2021, eight forest elephants were poached for their ivory. Organized elephant poaching is a scourge with poachers coming in from the more politically unstable Central African Republic. If urgent conservation action is not taken, the fate of such a charismatic species will be sealed.

The government has assigned the military to fight poaching and partnered with Gabon. In October 2020, this partnership led to 187 pieces of ivory retrieved from a smuggling network.  DNA analysis show the ivory belonged to elephants from the Central African Republic.


Home to 400 forest elephants today, the demise of the mega-herbivore in this war-stricken country has been rapid. Since the 1980s, Liberia has lost 19,000 elephants to illegal poaching that was 95% of the population, leaving 1,000 elephants remaining by 2011.

The Liberian government is partnering with local communities to treat wildlife with caution. “Elephants know no bounderies,” states a government official. “It’s important for range countries to work together.”

Liberia is also home to the pygmy hippo which was only described in the 19th century.

Success Story


Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, this tiny West African country is a forest elephant stronghold. It boasts a population of 95,000 forest elephants from 60,000 in the 1980s, an increase of 150% in addition to some 35,000 gorillas.

Minister Lee White puts it down to the incredible political will to save its forest elephants and natural resources. Before the government got serious, Gabon had lost 25,000 forest elephants to poachers.

Conservation can be turned into a source of capital, believes Chami. But it needs the backing of good science for the financial economists to compute the exact price – and of course the political will.