The sheer scale and speed of elephant poaching in central Africa has been highlighted in a new long-term multi-national study of forest elephant populations. In 10 years 62% of the elephants have been killed and a third of all their habitat of 10 years ago is now too dangerous for them to live in.
The study, which is the largest of any ever undertaken on the African forest elephant included work from over 60 researchers and spanned from 2002 till 2011. Conservation staff who took part in the surveys committed 91,600 days surveying elephants in 5 countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo), walking over 13,000 kilometers (more than 8,000 miles) and recording over 11,000 elephant dung piles for the analysis.
The speed at which the forest elephants are being lost – mainly to poachers for the ivory – means that the African forest elephant is at real risk of becoming extinct. And that risk is a real risk and not a hyped up ‘pseudo-risk’ that many conservationists and campaigners put on some species.
“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,” say Wildlife Conservation Society conservationists Fiona Maisels, PhD, and Samantha Strindberg, PhD, the lead authors.
The paper also 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. 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.
Bethan Morgan, PhD, head of San Diego Zoo Global’s Central Africa Program, stressed the importance of this study. “This is the largest collaborative study of its kind across the whole of Central Africa and really highlights the plight of this ecologically important species. Forest elephants are integral to a functioning forest in Africa, opening up the forest floor and acting as a vital part of the life cycle of many plant species through their role as seed dispersers. We have increasing evidence of a decline in certain tree species as a result of the local extinction of forest elephants.“
The paper notes that the forest elephant is now at less than 10% of it’s potential size when the available habitat is taken into account and the elephants are now only found in less than 25% of it’s potential range.
The more notable results of the survey shows that:
- The DR Congo – a country which had traditionally been thought of as a stronghold of the forest elephant is now missing the creature from over 95% of it’s forests.
- Despite DR Congo having 62% of the forest cover for central Africa it now only has about 20% of the regions forest elephants. In 1989 it was estimated that DR Congo had 40% of the regions forest elephants.
- About 50% of the remaining forest elephant population is now found in Gabon.
- Only 2% of central Africa’s forests now have elephants at a high density.
- The study now estimates that just under 100,000 forest elephants remained in the wild in 2011.
More international attention is being placed on the forest elephants and the growing ivory trade. Sadly international agreements and enforcement can be slow and cumbersome – especially in countries that are not stable and have limited resources. There has to be a big question on whether the international community can move fast enough to prevent the loss of the forest elephant when you consider the speed that the poachers are operating at.