African elephants are often thought of as one species but they are 2 separate species. There is the African forest elephant as well as the African bush/savannah elephant.
As their names suggest, African forest elephants live in the thick forests of Subsaharan Africa. On the other hand, African bush elephants live in the open savannahs and grasslands in Africa.
On a wildlife viewing safari, most people will see the savannah elephants but forest elephants can be seen in areas with forests. The differences between the 2 species of African elephants can be noticed through various physical and social adaptations over millions of years.
Differences Between African Bush And Forest Elephants
1. Are They Separate Species?
According to leading wildlife research and conservation organizations, there are 2 different species of African elephants. The African forest elephant and the African bush/savannah elephants.
The matter is not fully settled because some research suggests that they should be indeed subspecies. The main reason for this contrasting idea is because African forest and bush elephants are able to interbreed and produce viable offspring - capable of reproducing.
2. Size & Weight
African bush elephants are bigger and heavier than African forest elephants.
An average African bush elephant weighs around 6,000 kilograms (13000 lbs). On the other hand, an average African forest elephant weighs between 2,000 and 4000 kilograms ( 4400 - 8800 lbs).
African forest elephants are shorter than savannah elephants. Forest elephants measure between 2.4 to 3 meters at the shoulder. Savannah elephants are taller and measure between 3.2 and 4 meters at the shoulder.
|African Bush Elephant
|6,000 kg (13000 lb )
|3.2 - 4 meters
|African Forest Elephant
|2,000 - 4,000 kg ( 4400 - 8800 lb)
|2.4 - 3 meters
3. Natural Habitat
African forest elephants live in dense forests while savannah elephants are found in savannahs and woodlands.
Forest elephants are commonly found in countries with big forests in western and central Africa. Bush elephants are common in the open and bushy savannahs of Eastern and Southern Africa.
For a more detailed look at which countries and national parks can be visited for elephants, take a look at our article on the Wild habitat of African Elephants
African savannah elephants mostly feed on the grass while forest elephants mostly feed on leaves and fruits. This behavioral difference is due to the availability of different foods in each of the separate habitats.
Savannahs have fewer fruits while forests have less grass on the forest floor.
5. Social Structures.
Forest elephants often live in smaller herds of around 4 individuals. Savannah elephants live in larger groups often comprising around 10 individuals.
Forest elephant bulls associate more with the herd. On the other hand, savannah elephant bulls tend to be a bit more solitary.
Forest elephants communicate with lower frequency calls of around 5 hertz while bush elephants communicate at a frequency between 14 and 24 hertz.
The African forest elephant has a slightly flat back while the back of the savannah elephant is slightly curved.
8. Shape Of Tusks
The tusks of the African bush elephant are outward pointing. On the other hand, the tusks of an African forest elephant are downward pointing.
This is because outward-pointing tusks would make walking through the thick forests difficult. African forest elephants have evolved their tusks to better work in their forest habitat.
9. Is Their Skin Different?
African forest elephants have more fur/hair on their skins when compared to the African bush elephant. This is not very easy to tell from a distance unless you are using a pair of binoculars.
The African forest elephant has a darker skin color than the savannah elephant. This is another evolutionary adaptation to help the forest elephant become a bit more stealthy in the forests.
10. Can African Bush & Forest Elephants Interbreed?
African Bush and Forest elephants can interbreed. This is not common because of the differences in each species' natural habitat.
In Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park, you can see some elephants which clearly show that the forest and bush elephants have interbred.
While both elephant species are often thought of as one, they have some interesting differences. Both species have adapted both physically and socially to fit in their habitat.
While you will likely not miss seeing the savannah elephant in the national parks, the forest elephant is more stealthy and good at hiding. If you get to visit places where both species exist, take a closer look with your binoculars at all the things that separate the 2 elephant species.