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Forest Elephants Disappear as We Watch

By Dave Armstrong - 31 Mar 2013 10:42:39 GMT
Forest Elephants Disappear as We Watch

We are failing to catch up with the losses of forest elephants, in Congo and elsewhere; Forest elephants image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The critically endangered African forest elephant is now known as Loxodonta cyclotis. Any biologist should have noted that it has one less toenail on both front and back feet, more like the Asian elephant than its relative, the bush elephant. Down to only 900kg in some cases, this is the third largest living elephant, possibly the most familiar to ancient humans, but now hiding in its last stands around the Congo Basin.

Fiona Maisels of the University of Stirling and her fellow authors from DRC, the US, Belgium and more than 60 researchers elsewhere, combined with great support and funding from international organisations worldwide, are pulling weight here to try and save the species, but all seems lost if people-on-the-ground can't be activated, armed and, indeed, made dangerous!

The paper's title in the journal, PLoS ONE is indictment enough of past effort: "Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa." Acceleration of poaching, probably as the price of ivory increases, has dropped the population by 62% since 2002, with 30% of the range gone. With the ecologically-distinct forest elephant unable to make clearings and spread seeds within the system, the tropical forest will suffer as much as the species. But the elephants seem definitely to be reducing in numbers due to human encroachment and poaching, not for any ecological reason.

2011 had the highest illegally killed carcass count on record, with every population affected, even the 5% of the species in West Africa (Cameroon/Nigeria.) To cope with the essential measurement of this terrible decline, dung density was brought into the equation, as a simple but accurate survey method. This quickly revealed Gabon to have half of the remaining animals, but the DRC, which has been losing elephants rapidly since before 2002, had only 5% of its forest with elephant's resident.

This map from the paper illustrates the 80 sites used in central Africa. The forests are grey in this diagram.

This map from the paper illustrates the 80 sites used in central Africa. The forests are grey in this diagram; Credit: © PLoS ONE/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059469.g005

Where wildlife guards were even just present, or official protection was provided, dung density was much higher. Even "corruption" was measured, using a recognised international index, revealing that elephants were in higher densities in less corrupt countries. What a surprise!

Political instability obviously counts in this area, with so much conflict, as well as the obvious human population size factor. Without significant poaching, the forest elephant achieves up to 1 animal per km2, giving a potential for the area of a million elephants. By 1993, there was still half of this number, while the deficient system nowadays had produced a decrease of 90% by 2011 (equivalent to 100,000 live specimens).

Loxodonta Africana, the species we all expect on the savanna, has only 7,000 animals in central or western Africa. This could explain why poaching of the forest species is so extensive. In 2012, Cameroon saw well-armed poachers on horseback killing several hundred elephants. In mid-November, the Cameroon Army prevented their return. Armies unfortunately are often busy with other concerns. In the same year, China approached CITES with proposals on its internal trading in ivory They seem to have failed to carry out any changes in their internal monitoring As Fiona points out, "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."

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Topics: Elephants / Poaching / Endangered Species