The African elephant is listed as a threatened species.
It is considered to be a single species, Loxodonta africana with two subspecies, L.a. cyclotis (forest elephant) and L.a. africana (savanna elephant).
Some recent genetic research has suggested that the forest elephant is genetically different from the savanna elephant and represent a separate species of elephant (Comstock et al. 2002).
In the Statement on the Taxonomy of Extant Loxodonta, the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group recommends that further genetic and morphological research be conducted before dividing elephants from Africa into two separate species. Ongoing and future genetic studies of elephants throughout Africa will ultimately determine their classification.
Loxodonta africana currently occur in sub-Saharan Africa, with the majority of the population living in the savanna of southern, western, and eastern Africa and the forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) (Spinage 1994).
Much of the extant population is fragmented by human activities disturbing traditional migratory routes.
One of the highest projected human population growth in the next 25 years is expected in sub-Saharan Africa. The total fertility rate for African women remains high at nearly six live births per woman.
To avoid malnutrition, sub-Saharan Africa will need to increase its food production three-fold, turning existing elephant habitat into cropland, exacerbating the problem of declining elephant populations and habitat fragmentation.
L. africana once ranged throughout Africa. By the middle ages, the species became extinct in northern Africa primarily due to the ivory trade (Scullard 1974).
Overhunting during the 18th and 19th centuries depleted elephant numbers in Southern Africa (Hall-Martin 1992).
Controlled hunting, a drop in the price of ivory, and the development of wildlife preserves following World War I saw the population of elephants once again increase within Africa. In the 1970s, the increase in the price of ivory reignited the poaching of elephants.
The population, estimated to be at about 1.3 million in the early 1970s, dropped by more than half by 1995.
Due to uncontrolled poaching, in 1989 the African elephant was listed as Appendix I (endangered) by CITES which placed an international trade ban on elephants and elephant products.
In 1997, the African elephant was downlisted to Appendix II in some southern African countries by CITES due to rebounding populations and protection programs. This remains the case today.
Appendix II classifies these populations as threatened and allows some limited trade in elephant products with certain restrictions, quotas, and permits.