In a country where fewer than two dozen African forest elephants are thought to remain, any new sighting of these critically endangered animals is cause for celebration. So, when a previously undocumented family of eight – including three calves – showed up among camera trap footage collected from Guinea’s Ziama Massif, there was genuine excitement that a species on the very brink of local extinction might be showing the first, tentative signs of recovery.
The eight-strong herd, captured on camera by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) camera traps in the Ziama Forest, has never been seen before by our local team. The photos strongly suggest that the efforts of FFI and our local partner Centre Forestier N’Zérékoré to protect the forest habitat of this super-rare species are helping to ensure its survival in Guinea.
Have you seen your baby, mother, standing in the shadow? Credit: FFI
African forest elephants are smaller and, despite their vast bulk, far less conspicuous than the more familiar savannah elephants that we are accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. As their name suggests, they tend to inhabit densely forested areas, making them much harder to monitor. Forest elephants were recognised as a separate species only as recently as March this year. They were immediately accorded Critically Endangered status on the IUCN Red List, the highest category of threat for a species that still occurs in the wild.
FFI has been protecting African forest elephants and other species in Guinea since 2009. These forest giants formerly wandered freely over vast distances, so it is no surprise that they frequently criss-cross borders, but today it is estimated that fewer than 20 individual elephants regularly come and go from Guinea. This particular elephant family appears to have entered the country from neighbouring Liberia.
The decline of the species in the country, as in other parts of Africa, has been driven by poaching for the ivory trade and by conflict with humans, as our population has expanded and animal habitats have shrunk. FFI is helping to find ways for people and wildlife to coexist harmoniously alongside each other in ways that benefit both sides. Due in no small part to the efforts of our team on the ground, no elephant has been poached in the area since 2016. FFI is continuing to work closely with local communities on ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict and deforestation. This has included supporting farmers with measures that prevent crop-raiding by, for example, planting a protective buffer of ginger and other crops that elephants don’t like to eat, in order to safeguard staple crops such as rice.
Thanks to funding of £2 million raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, FFI is gaining a better understanding of the species present in Ziama and other habitats in this relatively unexplored corner of West Africa, by deploying cutting-edge environmental DNA (eDNA) technology. This enables conservationists to work out which species occur in an area simply by collecting small samples of water or soil and running them through an easy-to-use filtering kit. A recent eDNA survey in Ziama revealed the presence of no fewer than 112 species including the endangered white-bellied pangolin.
Collecting samples during an eDNA survey. Credit: FFI
Importantly, protecting Ziama’s ancient forest is not just good for elephants and pangolins – it’s good for our planet’s climate too. Intact forest habitats such as this store huge volumes of carbon. With the world now trying to cut carbon emissions from power plants, industry and transport to prevent catastrophic global warming, these forests are our ancient allies, helping us take carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it up. Older, intact and biologically rich forests do this far more efficiently than plantation forests or newly planted trees. Protecting them is a double win; it helps wildlife and it helps cool our warming planet.
Neus Estela Ribera, FFI’s Landscape Manager in Guinea, said: “You never know what you’re going to get when you put out camera traps and go through the images – but three forest elephant calves in one group was amazing to see.
“This is likely a new group that has come across the border from Liberia. The fact that there are three young elephants with them is a great sign, as it suggests the population is growing because their forest habitat in this area of Guinea has been better protected.
“The African forest elephant is still in grave danger, but there is hope. We know what to do to protect them. Working with local communities and with generous support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we can turn the tide and save these incredible animals from extinction.”
Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said: “I’m delighted funding raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery is protecting the critically endangered African forest elephant, and also mitigating climate change by safeguarding ecosystems that lock up carbon emissions.
“Players have supported this work as part of our Postcode Climate Challenge initiative, which is supporting 12 charities with an additional £24 million for projects tackling climate change this year.
“The climate and nature emergencies facing us are inextricably linked. By fighting them together we can protect vital forests like Ziama, and the communities and wildlife that depend on them.”
FFI and our partners will continue striving to ensure that the African forest elephant has room to roam and does not become a distant memory for the people of Guinea and the wider world.
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Tim has worked closely with FFI since 1999. He has edited &FFI (formerly Fauna & Flora magazine) since its inception in 2001 and is co-author of With Honourable Intent - A Natural History of Fauna & Flora International, published in 2017.