Fourteen years ago the first of a series of genetic tests unveiled a secret: African elephants aren’t really a single species. They are actually two different species that diverged from each other six million years ago.

One species, savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), lives in eastern and southern Africa. They’re significantly larger than the second species, forest elephants (L. cyclotis), which have straighter tusks and can be found in central and western Africa. All told, about 15 morphological differences, in addition to their DNA, set the two species apart. (Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, come from a separate genus.)

The news about African elephants hasn’t sunk in everywhere, though. Although these two elephant species each have unique habitat needs and face different levels of threats from the ivory trade and habitat loss, most conservation organizations and governments continue to view them as a single species, or at best two subspecies. That, some scientists and other conservation organizations argue, has slowed efforts to conserve all African elephants and could possibly have doomed many populations of both species to extermination.

Is it time to change that? This week the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—which currently recognizes African elephants as a single “threatened” species—to list the two species each as endangered.

“By listing African elephants as two species, we can look at the population trends and threats individually, which will increase the protection each receives,” says Tara Easter, a scientist with the CBD. “Forest elephant populations have declined by 65 percent in just nine years. If we lose the elephant populations in that region, that would mean that we lose an entire species. If we continue to classify them as one species, it would only be seen as losing populations of a species that may still occur in large numbers elsewhere.”

CBD’s petition follows a similar request this past February from the several other conservation organizations that also sought to list African elephants as an endangered species. That earlier petition did not ask FWS to consider two separate species. At the time, Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife for Humane Society International, told me during a press conference that there was no clear scientific consensus of the elephant’s taxonomy, so they kept their petition’s description to a single species.

Of course, the most recent evidence came later that month in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, where a literature review of all of the elephant genetics to date conclusively nailed down the two-species taxonomy. “African elephants simply comprise two distinct species,” says that paper’s lead author, Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who was also the author of the first genetics paper 14 years ago. “As one of the first scientists to investigate this issue, I’ve stayed up nights trying to think of ways that this conclusion could be wrong. There is no evidence outstanding, no new study one might design that would somehow settle the question in some other way.”

What’s the value of identifying two separate species now, at a time when poachers kill an average 96 elephants in Africa every day? “Forest elephants and savanna elephants, as their names suggest, live in different habitats and face different threats,” Easter says. “Each plays an important role in their ecosystem. Savanna elephants keep the canopies open and promote diversity, and forest elephants disperse seeds that maintain the world’s second-largest rainforest. They need to be managed individually.”

Obviously the U.S. Endangered Species Act is only one such tool for this but Easter says that “by listing them separately and as endangered in the U.S., that will raise awareness of each of their plights and provide additional funding for their recovery.” The FWS manages the African Elephant Conservation Fund, which helps support on-the-ground conservation efforts in several African countries. The U.S. has also supplied Marines to help train anti-poaching forces.

Even if FWS agrees with either this week’s petition or the one from February—a process that could take a couple of years—other organizations, governments and groups also have to make the same decision. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still lists African elephants as a single species. Although it acknowledges evidence that there may be two species, the most recent update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes concerns voiced way back in 2003 that “premature allocation into more than one species may leave hybrids in an uncertain conservation status.” (The two species have some levels of overlapping range.)

Roca discounts this caution over hybrids. “They do hybridize,” he says, “but the genetic evidence also suggests that hybrids, and especially hybrid males, are reproductively not very successful and consequently there is little or no nuclear gene flow between the two groups. Lack of gene flow between two groups is pretty much the definition of a species.”

Tara Daniel, program manager for the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, which is in charge of updating the Red List entry, says the group is "reviewing the latest research as well as the body of work on this topic and will continue consulting with experts to prepare the best way for the membership to consider this timely issue."

Beyond this, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also lists the African elephant as one species and regulates commercial trafficking accordingly. Recognizing two species could pose some difficulties when it comes to international enforcement but trade in almost all elephant products is already banned so it shouldn’t add too much extra complexity to the process.

Ultimately the one-species/two-species question boils down to one sad fact: we’re failing all African elephants. If we don’t do more—and soon—we are undoubtedly going to lose elephants from large portions of their ranges in the next few years. We might even lose a species in the process.

Photo: A forest elephant family by Richard Ruggiero, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Previously in Extinction Countdown: