Extinction looms for forest elephants

Conservation scientists are urging immediate measures to save the African forest elephant, which is being poached out of existence. A study just published in the online journal PLOS ONE shows that across their range in Central Africa, a staggering 62% of all forest elephants have been killed for their ivory over the past decade.

With the decline documented throughout Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and Republic of Congo, the study confirms what conservationists have feared: a rapid trend towards extinction – potentially within the next decade – of the forest elephant, according to its authors.

“Saving the species requires a coordinated global effort in the countries where elephants occur, all along the ivory smuggling routes, and at the final destination in the Far East. We don’t have much time,” says lead author Fiona Maisels of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The study examined the largest ever amount of Central African elephant survey data, and comes as 178 countries gather at a CITES meeting in Bangkok (3–14 March) to discuss wildlife trade issues, including poaching and ivory smuggling.

A bundle of confiscated forest elephant tusks from Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo; these small tusks came from juvenile elephants killed by poachers. Photo credit Pele Nkumu/Wildlife Conservation Society

A bundle of confiscated forest elephant tusks from Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo; these small tusks came from juvenile elephants killed by poachers. Photo credit Pele Nkumu/Wildlife Conservation Society

As the largest ever study conducted on the African forest elephant, it incorporates the work of more than 60 scientists between 2002 and 2011, and an immense effort by national conservation staff who spent 91,600 days surveying for elephants in their five Central African range countries, walking over 13,000 kilometres (more than 8,000 miles) and recording over 11,000 samples for the analysis.

The paper shows that almost a third of the land where African forest elephants were able to live 10 years ago has become too dangerous for them.

Co-author Dr John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation said, “Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million square kilometres (over 772,000 square miles), but now cower in just a quarter of that area. Although the forest cover remains, it is empty of elephants, demonstrating that this is not a habitat degradation issue. This is almost entirely due to poaching.”

Results show clearly that forest elephants were increasingly uncommon in places with high human density, high infrastructure density such as roads, high hunting intensity, and poor governance as indicated by levels of corruption and absence of law enforcement.

Distinct from the African savannah elephant, the African forest elephant is slightly smaller than its better known relative and is considered by many to be a separate species. They play a vital role in maintaining the biodiversity of one of the Earth’s critical carbon sequestering tropical forests.

Prof. Lee White CBE, head of Gabon’s National Parks Service said, “A rainforest without elephants is a barren place. They bring it to life, they create the trails and keep open the forest clearings other animals use; they disperse the seeds of many of the rainforest trees – elephants are forest gardeners at a vast scale. Their calls reverberate through the trees reminding us of the grandeur of primeval nature. If we do not turn the situation around quickly the future of elephants in Africa is doomed. These new results illustrate starkly just how dramatic the situation has become. Our actions over the coming decade will determine whether this iconic species survives.”

Research carried out by the CITES-MIKE programme has shown that the increase in poaching levels across Africa since 2006 strongly correlates with trends in consumer demand in the Far East, and that poaching levels are also strongly linked with governance at the national level and poverty at the local scale. This has resulted in escalating elephant massacres in areas previously thought to be safe.

Reducing chronic corruption and improving poor law enforcement, which facilitate poaching and trade, are crucial. It is also vital to improve control of import and sales of wildlife goods by the recipient and transit countries of illegal ivory, especially in Asia. The recipient nations, with the international community, should invest heavily in public education and outreach to inform consumers of the ramifications of the ivory trade. Although the challenge is daunting, China and other Asian countries demonstrated that strong political will can quickly and successfully modify behaviour and governance, as was witnessed during the 2003 SARS threat. Similar action, focused on curbing ivory demand is key, if elephants are to survive.

The 62 authors of the paper – titled ‘Devastating Decline in Forest Elephants in Central Africa’ – represent conservationists who have worked in Central Africa with the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF, Programme de Conservation et Utilisation Rationale des Ecosystemes Forestiers en Afrique Centrale (ECOFAC), Fauna & Flora International, Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation International, the Jane Goodall Institute, Lukuru Foundation, Zoological Society of London,  Max Planck Institute, San Diego Zoo, African Wildlife Foundation, University of Liege and University of Stirling.

The PLOS ONE article is available in full online.