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Forest Elephant

Forest Elephant
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Loxodonta cyclotis

Until recently, it was thought that the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) was simply a subspecies of the African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana). DNA testing has now shown that there are in fact three extant elephant species: the two African types (formerly considered to be separate populations of a single species, the African Elephant) and the South Asian species, known as the Indian or Asian Elephant.

A small number of zoologists argued that the Forest Elephant was a distinct species as long ago as 1900. Evidence put forward included its long, narrow mandible (the Savana Elephant's is short and wide), its rounded ears (a Savanna Elephant's ears are more pointed), a different number of toenails, different tusks, and considerably smaller size. Male Forest Elephants rarely exceed 2.5 metres in height, while Savanna Elephants are usually over 3 metres and sometimes almost 4 metres tall.

The toenail evidence proved to be misleading: although adult Savanna Elephants, on average, have 14 toenails (four toes on each forefoot and three on each hindfoot), and Savanna Elephants average 18 toenails (5 front and 4 rear), all elephants are in fact born with five toe nails per foot, but because of the rougher terrain they usually occupy, Savanna Elephants suffer more minor foot injuries.

Nevertheless, the remaining differences would have been sufficient to assign species rank to the Forest Elephant, had it not been observed that the two populations interbreed where their ranges overlap. In consequence, the Savanna Elephant was listed as a subspecies, Loxodonta africana cyclotis.

Late in the 20th century, conservation workers established a DNA identification system to trace the origin of poached ivory. It had long been known that the ivory of Forest Elephants was particularly hard, with a pinkish tinge, and straight (where that of the Savanna Elephant is curved). The DNA tests, however, indicated that the two populations were much more different than previously appreciated—indeed, in its genetic makeup, the Forest Elephant is almost two-thirds as distinct from the Savanna Elephant as the Asian Elephant is.