"The impact on management strategies if there are two elephant species in Africa is huge," says Ben-Shahar. "Now we will have two species that are less numerous than was thought before."
Being killed for their ivory and loss of habitat due to encroachment by humans are threats faced by both African species. However, recognition of their genetic distinctiveness will allow wildlife managers to fine-tune conservation strategies to best protect each species. Forest elephants are more threatened by logging, for instance, whereas agricultural expansion poses a huge threat to the elephants of the savanna.
In addition, forest elephant populations are smaller, and their ivory is highly prized for its hardness and pinkish color. "The difficulty in detecting poaching in the rain forest may put the forest elephant more at risk," says Osborn.
On the other hand, the elephants of the savanna face more friction with humans because they live where people prefer to live, unlike the forest elephant, says Ben-Shahar. But their accessibility may garner more of the conservation dollars.
"It [the savanna elephant] is the more appealing of the two species for tourists because it is bigger and easily found. Would you pay much to see a reclusive elephant shadow in the jungle?" asks Ben-Shahar.
Recognition of the forest elephant as a separate species also has legal implications. The African elephant, Loxodonta africana, is listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES, pronounced like nighties). There is some concern that under current treaty regulations, recognition of a second species could open a loophole that would allow poachers to exploit the ban on ivory trade.
The IUCN Species Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group does not plan to address the two-species issue until early next year, according to Leo Niskanen, program officer for the group.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Geographic Society, European Union, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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