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Extinction Looms for Forest Elephants

  • Monday, March 4, 2013
  • New York
African forest elephant in Democratic Republic of Congo

An African forest elephant in the DRC. Photo credit: Craig R. Sholley

PLOS ONE study with largest dataset on forest elephants ever compiled reveals a loss of more than 60 percent in the past decade.

NEW YORK, March 4, 2013 -- African forest elephants are 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 percent of all forest elephants have been killed for their ivory over the past decade.

The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend towards extinction—potentially within the next decade—of the forest elephant, according to the 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, which examines the largest-ever amount of Central African elephant survey data, comes as 178 countries gather in Bangkok to discuss wildlife trade issues, including poaching and ivory smuggling.

The study—the largest ever conducted on the African forest elephant— includes the work of more than 60 scientists between 2002 and 2011, and an immense effort by national conservation staff who spent 91,600 person-days surveying for elephants in five countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo); walking over 13,000 km (more than 8,000 mi.); 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 says: “Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million sq. km (over 772,000 sq. mi.), 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 savanna 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, says: “A rain forest 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 (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) program has shown that the increase in poaching levels across Africa since 2006 is strongly correlated 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.

“We have been carrying out surveys in the forests of Gabon for over a decade and seen an increasing number of elephant carcasses over the years,” say co-authors Mr. Rostand Aba’a of the Gabon National Parks Service and Mr. Marc Ella Akou of WWF Gabon.

Earlier this month, the government of Gabon announced the loss of approximately 11,000 forest elephants in Minkébé National Park between 2004 and 2012, which previously held Africa’s largest forest elephant population.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon says: “Gabon’s elephants are under siege because of an illegal international market that has driven ivory prices in the region up significantly. I call upon the international community to join us in this fight. If we do not reverse the tide fast, the African elephant will be exterminated.”

Recent surveys from Democratic Republic of Congo showed a major decline of elephants in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, considered the last stronghold for elephants in the region.

Dr. George Wittemyer, of Save the Elephants and Colorado State University, says: “This study provides unequivocal evidence of the rapid demise of one of the planet’s most charismatic and intelligent species. The world must wake up to stem this destruction of species due to conspicuous consumption.”

Effective, rapid, multi-level action is imperative to save elephants. A drastic increase of funding, and an immediate focus on the most effective protection strategies, are essential to avoid future huge losses to the remaining elephant populations.

Stephen Blake, of the Max Planck Institute, says: “Forest elephants need two things: They need adequate space in which to range normally, and they need protection. Unprotected roads, most often associated with exploitation for timber or other natural resources, push deeper and deeper into the wilderness, tolling the death knell for forest elephants. Large road-free areas must be maintained, and the roads that do exist must have effective wildlife protection plans if forest elephants are to survive.”

ZSL's West and North Africa Programme Manager Chris Ransom says: “The evidence of this study, coupled with the evidence of the massive seizures of ivory seen in East and South East Asia over the last couple of years makes it clear that we must take action.”

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 behavior 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 authors of the paper—titled “Devastating Decline in Forest Elephants in Central Africa”—are: Fiona Maisels, Samantha Strindberg, Stephen Blake, George Wittemyer, John Hart, Elizabeth A. Williamson, Rostand Aba’a, Gaspard Abitsi, Ruffin D. Ambahe, Fidel Amsini, Parfait C. Bakabana, Thurston Cleveland Hicks, Rosine E. Bayogo, Martha Bechem, Rene L. Beyers, Anicet N. Bezangoye, Patrick Boundja, Nicholas Bout, Marc Ella Akou, Lambert Bene Bene, Bernard Fosso, Elizabeth Greengrass, Falk Grossmann, Clement Ikamba-Nkulu, Omari Ilambu, Bila-Isia Inogwabini, Fortune Iyenguet, Franck Kiminou, Max Kokangoye, Deo Kujirakwinja, Stephanie Latour, Innocent Liengola, Quevain Mackaya, Jacob Madidi, Bola Madzoke, Calixte Makoumbou, Guy-Aimé Malanda, Richard Malonga, Olivier Mbani, Valentin A. Mbenzo, Edgar Ambassa, Albert Ekinde, Yves Mihindou, Bethan J. Morgan, Prosper Motsaba, Gabin Moukala, Anselme Mounguengui, Brice S. Mowawa, Christian Ndzai, Stuart Nixon, Pele Nkumu, Fabian Nzolani, Lilian Pintea, Andrew Plumptre, Hugo Rainey, Bruno de Semboli, Adeline Serckx, Emma Stokes, Andrea Turkalo, Hilde Vanleeuwe, Ashley Vosper, and Ymke Warren.

This group represents conservationists who have worked in Central Africa with the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wide Fund for Nature, Programme de Conservation et Utilisation Rationale des Ecosystemes Forestiers en Afrique Centrale (ECOFAC), Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation International, the Jane Goodall Institute, Lukuru Foundation, Zoological Society of London, Fauna and Flora International, Max Planck Institute, San Diego Zoo, African Wildlife Foundation, University of Liege, and University of Stirling.

Funding was provided by Nancy Abraham, the African Wildlife Foundation, Beneficia Foundation, Busch Gardens, CITES-MIKE, Columbus Zoo, Conservation International, Daniel K. Thorne Foundation, Diane Fossey Gorilla Foundation International, Espèces Phares (European Union), Ecosystèmes Forestiers d’Afrique Centrale (ECOFAC), Fauna and Flora International, Frankfurt Zoological Society, IUCN Netherlands, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, KFW, LifeWeb (Spain), National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS, Belgium), Offield Family Foundation, Operation Loango, Prince Bernhard Wildlife Fund, RAPAC, The Arcus Foundation, The Aspinall Foundation, The Born Free Foundation, The Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at The University of Amsterdam, the Jane Goodall Institute, The Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, The Lucie Burgers Foundation, The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation and Karl Ammann, Total Gabon, UNESCO, United States Agency for International Development (USAID CARPE), USFWS Great Ape Conservation Fund, USFWS African Elephant Conservation Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London.

The article is available at: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059469
 

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