Thursday, 23 July 2015

Scientists: we are 'condemning' forest elephants by ignoring evidence

As the ivory trade threatens to obliterate forest elephants, conservationists and governments fail to recognise them as a distinct species despite rising genetic and physical evidence 

Thursday 23 July 2015 09.11 BSTLast modified on Thursday 23 July 201513.37 BST

How do you tell two species apart? Let’s say you’re investigating a bird with two populations. One lives in the savanna, the other in the forest. The savanna population eats grasshoppers, but the one in the forest eats beetles. The savanna bird is big-bodied with a curvy beak; the forest bird is smaller with a straighter beak. Is this enough to determine you’re dealing with not one, but two species? Probably. But how about you look at the genetics? Lo and behold, the animals’ DNA shows that the birds have been separated by 6 million years – easily making it two species.

Now, let’s say we’re not talking about birds here, but elephants. African elephants. Suddenly, things get messy. Really messy. And political. And heated.

“To my knowledge, all the evidence, now a very large amount, supports two [African elephant] species, and no evidence supports one,” said Nick Georgiadis, a research scientist with the Puget Sound Institute and a co-author of a recent paper that argues for two species published in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences. “There never was any objective evidence supporting one species, just a few subjective preferences that became dogma.”

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