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The three species of elephants: African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)
The three species of elephants from left to right: African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)

Did you know that there are three species of elephants in the world? Most only know of two: the African savannah elephant, also known as the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). However, in 2010 a detailed genetic study confirmed that there is a third distinct species: the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) – only found in the rainforests of Central and West Africa.

Further research has shown that African forest elephants are more closely related to a now-extinct ancestor than they are to the savannah elephants.

A revised tree showing phylogenetic relationships among living and extinct members of the elephant family
A revised tree showing phylogenetic relationships among living and extinct members of the elephant family, colour-coded by their presumed geographical range. Image credit: Meyer et al. (2017)

All three may look the same from afar, but on closer inspection there are quite a number of differences between the species.

Join us as we take a look at the main differences between the African, Asian and forest elephant:
African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) drinking at a waterhole
African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) drinking at a waterhole

Size

The savannah elephant is the largest of the three species – also the largest living terrestrial animal in the world – with bulls growing up to over 3 metres in height and weighing up to 8,000 kg. On average, Asian elephant bulls can reach about 2.75 metres, weighing up to 5,500 kg, while forest elephant bulls (the smallest of the three) rarely exceed 2.5 metres and weigh around 2,700 kg.

An African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana)
An African savannah elephant

Ears

Savannah elephants’ ears look like the shape of the African continent and when compared to the other two species are much bigger and reach up and over the neck, which does not occur in Asian elephants.

Forest elephants’ ears are more oval-shaped, while the Asian are shaped like India and are more rounded on top and flat along the bottom when compared to the savannah elephant.

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) in a forest
Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) in a forest in Asia

Head shape

Savannah elephants have fuller, more rounded heads. They have a single dome head, whereas Asian elephants have a twin-domed head, which means there’s a divot line running up the middle of the head.

The head of the forest elephant is similar to that of the savannah, albeit slightly smaller.

Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic © Peter Prokosch

Tusks

Forest elephants have tusks that are straight and point downward, unlike the savanna elephants who have curved tusks. All savannah and forest elephants, male and female, can have tusks – whereas only some male Asian elephants have tusks. About 50% of female Asian elephants and a small percentage of males have small tusk-like teeth known as tushes (which have no pulp inside).

However it must be noted that not all male Asian elephants nor all savannah and forest elephants necessarily develop tusks.

Nails

There is even a difference between the amount of nails on each of the three species feet:

• African savanna elephant: 4 nails on front feet, 3 on back feet

• African forest elephant: 5 nails on front feet, 4 on back feet

• Asian elephant: 5 nails on front feet, 4 on back feet (rarely 5)

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) drinking water
Asian elephants drinking water – notice the ear size is quite smaller than the African savannah species

Location

Savannah elephants are found in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Angola.

Forest elephants are found in Central and West Africa, including Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana.

Asian elephants are found in tropical and subtropical moist and dry broadleaf forests in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

IUCN status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) does not currently recognise forest and savannah elephants as distinct species. Both fall under the title of African elephant.

• African savannah elephant: ‘Vulnerable’

• Forest elephant: Classified as ‘Vulnerable’, but should be classified as ‘Endangered’ according to African Conservation Foundation

• Asian elephant: ‘Endangered’


ADDITIONAL READING

17 Elephant facts you need to know

Video: How cracks in an elephant’s skin keep it cool

• Matthias Meyer et al. eLife (2017) Palaeogenomes of Eurasian straight-tusked elephants challenge the current view of elephant evolution. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.25413

Forest elephants drinking water in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic © Peter Prokosch
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