African Forest Elephant

African Forest Elephant Photo
WCS studies the social dynamics of the elusive African forest elephant in the rainforests of the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.
©R. Butler/

The forests of Central and Western Africa harbor the endangered African forest elephant. Smaller than its African savannah counterpart, this species has straighter, slimmer tusks, and smoother skin, allowing it to move more easily through dense forests. They rely far more on fruit than do savannah (or “bush”) elephants, though they also feed on bark and herbaceous material. Forest elephants’ requirement for mineral salts attracts them to specific, mineral-rich, open forest clearings that occur throughout the forest region, known as bais (pronounced: "buys"). Here the elephants dig in the soil, or extract the mineral substances from the beds of rivers and streams, sometimes by kneeling down to get as deep as possible with their trunks or even by diving underwater. Unfortunately, these sites are also hugely attractive to poachers, who can get a clear shot at whole groups of elephants, without the obstruction of heavy forest growth.

The home range of an individual forest elephant can be more than 772 square miles, which is bigger than many of the national parks in central Africa. Most of the remaining African forest elephants are now primarily found in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, with significant populations also remaining in the southeastern corner of the Republic of Cameroon, and the adjoining southwestern tip of the Central African Republic. WCS scientists are studying the species’ habitat needs, ecology and behavior, as well as ways to best conserve this unique species.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameLoxodonta cyclotis
  • Male African forest elephants rarely stand over 8 feet tall, whereas the African savannah elephant usually measures between 10 to 13 feet tall.
  • Forest elephants are highly aware that roads are very dangerous, unless they are protected from poachers. They will travel 14 times faster than normal in order to cross a road they consider to be risky.
  • Forest elephants can walk across large national parks in as little as three days.


Forest elephants range throughout a region rife with political instability and human poverty, placing this fragile population at high risk for human exploitation. As human populations grow, and industrial logging and mining spreads, roads and settlements are encroaching deeper into the forest. Forest elephant range is becoming increasingly restricted and fragmented. As wilderness areas shrink, and elephants become restricted to smaller and smaller fragments of land, their chances of survival become increasingly compromised. What was once the remote heart of wild Africa has become increasingly crisscrossed with roads and swarming with human activity. The new roads that cut through the Congo Basin have spawned numerous human settlements and serve as direct conduits for poachers who come seeking the forest’s bounty, including elephant tusks to supply the booming illegal ivory trade to China and other countries. Scientists have called these roads “highways of death” for the forest elephant, and halting illegal hunting is crucial to the species’ survival.

Forest elephants are still shrouded in mystery—other than basic information, there is little scientific data about this species, including their home range requirements, ranging patterns, and seasonal movements. A better understanding of the forest elephants’ range and habitat requirements is essential for helping regional planners develop strategies to prevent irreversible impacts on forest elephant populations, as well as lessening any conflict between these rare elephants and humans.

WCS Responds

WCS’s Global Health Program has been working in collaboration with the WCS Africa Program to investigate forest elephant ecology and health. With the assistance of highly trained pygmy trackers, forest elephants have been located, immobilized, and fitted with GPS satellite collars for long-term telemetry studies in Gabon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of Congo. While the animal is immobilized, biological samples such as ectoparasites, feces, blood, and skin biopsies are collected as part of an ongoing health assessment, which is of critical importance for the effective conservation of this species. Understanding ranging and habitat requirements of forest elephants will help regional planners develop solutions to avert irreversible impacts on elephant populations, as well as minimize human-elephant conflict.

WCS is working with the countries where elephants occur to reinforce and expand protected areas and national parks. In protected areas such as National parks and Faunal Reserves, incidences of poaching are significantly fewer and the overall abundance of elephants is dramatically higher. For example, 2004 surveys in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park and its buffer zone, one of the largest wilderness areas remaining in the Congo Basin, showed a population of an estimated 22,000 elephants. In order to protect forest elephants in their remaining strongholds, our scientists are urging a region-wide campaign to halt the spread of poaching and the ivory trade itself, and recommending that private logging and mining companies work to reduce illegal hunting in their concession areas, especially those near protected areas.

WCS is also working to protect the major forest clearings throughout the region, and WCS scientists are combining forces with other conservation organizations, with governments, and with private industry, such as logging and mining companies, to minimize the possibilities for poachers to operate at the bais.

WCS has sponsored long-term research at Dzanga bai, where Andrea Turkalo has spent nearly two decades identifying individual forest elephants, documenting their life stories, maintaining a presence that deters illegal hunting in the area, and alerting park guards when the elephants' behavior indicates danger. Most recently, in collaboration with Cornell University, Turkalo has been recording elephant vocalizations to try to decipher forest elephant "language". Collecting the video and audio data while making direct observations, the researchers are matching the elephants' calls with their behaviors and attempting to better understand interactions amongst family groups.

WCS Projects

Ecoguards of Central Africa

As the eyes and ears for conservationists, ecoguards work not only to protect national parks and surrounding lands, but also to help evaluate the success of international conservation efforts.

Keeping Bushmeat off the Rails in Cameroon

To help Cameroon stem the dangerous trade in bushmeat from forests to lucrative urban markets, WCS partners with the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the CAMRAIL national train network—in the past, a common means of transporting large volumes of wildlife.

Logging Concession in Congo

WCS works with the CIB logging company to reduce the pressures on gorillas, elephants, and other endangered wildlife in four timber concessions and to control the trade in bushmeat. This collaborative project is called PROGEPP: the Project for Ecosystem Management in the Nouabalé-Ndoki Periphery Area.

From the Newsroom

WCS Issues Statement on China's One-Year Ivory BanFebruary 27, 2015

Elephants are in grave danger thanks to the global demand for ivory. China's announcement of a one-year ban on ivory imports is a great step to stemming the tide.

Banning Ivory Sales in AmericaFebruary 18, 2014

As the second-largest market for ivory in the world, the United States recently announced that it will ban the trade within its borders through a series of new rules. The editorial board of the New York Times explores the implications.

More Devastating News for Forest ElephantsFebruary 12, 2014

The authors of a landmark 2013 study, coordinated by WCS, show that forest elephant poaching continues apace, with 65 percent of the animals lost between 2002 and 2013. The information was released at the United for Wildlife International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London.

The Bloody Ivory BusinessFebruary 8, 2014

Following recent ivory crushes by the governments of France, China, and the U.S., the editorial board of the New York Times evaluates an initiative by New York State legislators to prohibit all ivory sales in the state, including those that are now technically legal.

How We Can End the Elephant Poaching CrisisAugust 20, 2013

In a blog post following her recent trip to Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, where she observed elephants and met with WCS staff, Chelsea Clinton writes on the urgency of ending the poaching crisis.


~/media/Images/wcs org/forms/please donate to help conservation.png
Stay in touch with WCS and receive the latest news.

Saving Wild Places

Where We Work

Natural Resource Use