Forest elephant conservation in Liberia

The forest elephant population (Loxodonta cyclotis) of Central Africa has declined by more than half in the last two decades. Information on population sizes in West Africa is completely missing. In close cooperation with ElReCo and Future for Elephants, we are therefore using genetic markers to investigate size, structure and sex composition of forest elephant populations in Liberia in order to support conservation measures for these endangered giants.

African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) searching for food in the jungle of Liberia. (© Photo: ElReCo)

Project details
Duration: 2020 - indefinite (long-term planned)
Third-party funded: Third-party co-financed
Involved Department(s): Dept of Evolutionary Genetics
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Jörns Fickel (Dept of Evolutionary Genetics)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Anke Schmidt, Jörns Fickel
Consortium Partner(s): Tina Vogt (ElReCo), Bernhard Forster (ElReCo)
Current Funding Organisation: ElReCo

Research Foci:

Determination of population size,
determination of migration routes


African forest elephants live elusively in the rainforests of West and Central Africa. While the populations of Central Africa (e.g. Gabon) have in recent years been the focus of several studies, which have shown a population decline of more than 60% since the beginning of the 2000s, there are still no reliable data on the population size of the forest elephants of West Africa. The non-profit ELEPHANT RESEARCH AND CONSERVATION society (ElReCo) has been active in the conservation of West African forest elephants in Liberia since 2010. We have been working with ELRECO since 2020. The colleagues working in the field are using a non-invasive sampling approach and collect swabs of forest elephant faeces on site, from which we then extract the DNA. This is the starting material for a genetic analysis of Liberia's forest elephant population to gain information about its size and composition as well as possible migration corridors. Based on previously published SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), we have designed an SNP array (Fluidigm) that allows us to simultaneously analyse the DNA of a maximum of 96 samples at a maximum of 96 SNP loci. Preliminary tests have already been carried out and have shown an analysis success rate of ~30% on these non-invasively collected samples, i.e. about one third of the faecal swabs examined yielded evaluable results. Because the SNP loci panel available to us comprises 107 loci, we are currently determining the 11 most unsuitable loci in order to reduce the panel to a maximum of 96 loci in order to increase the efficacy of future analyses.

Fresh dung pile of a forest elephant in the jungle of Liberia.
When such a pile of excrement is found, material is taken and stored for genetic studies. (© Photo: ElReCo)

Text excerpt WWF Germany:

"African elephants are true climate heroes. But as a result of global warming, habitats are changing dramatically and no longer meet the animals' needs - as is the case with the African forest elephants, the smaller, hidden relatives of the savanna elephants that are still little studied. Yet it is precisely the forest elephants that stabilize the climate as the so-called gardeners of the rainforest. The feeding and migratory behavior of forest elephants promotes the survival of large, slow-growing trees with a correspondingly greater wood density, which store considerably more carbon in their trunks than smaller trees.

In the process, each living forest elephant provides climate mitigation services worth millions. Calculating the monetary value of wildlife and ecosystems is a way to give meaning and expression to species conservation from an economic perspective as well. A single one of these elephants increases the carbon storage capacity of the rainforest in which it lives by 9,500 tons per square kilometer. Extrapolated to an entire elephant's life, this is equivalent to 1.6 million euros. In contrast, the black market price of the ivory of a dead, poached elephant is estimated to be comparatively just under 20,000 euros."

© Photo Header: ElReCo