African Forest Elephant Moves Rapidly Toward Extinction
March 5, 2013

African Forest Elephant Moves Rapidly Toward Extinction

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study from a large group of international researchers shows African forest elephants are being rapidly pushed toward extinction by illegal poaching and the ivory trade.

An extensive meta-analysis of surveys and fieldwork data has shown that 62 percent of forest elephants have been killed for their ivory, according to the study, which appeared in the latest edition of PLOS ONE.

"The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend towards extinction — potentially within the next decade — of the forest elephant," said lead author Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The comprehensive study included the work of over 60 scientists between 2002 and 2011 across five African countries, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

According to the study, areas in these countries with high population density, high hunting frequency and poor governance translated into a high loss of forest elephants. About one-third of the land where forest elephants lived 10 years ago has now become too perilous for them to inhabit.

"Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million square kilometers (over 772,000 square miles), but now cower in just a quarter of that area,” said co-author John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation. “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."

The researchers connected African poaching activity with research from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that has shown a direct correlation between poaching activity and ivory demand trends in the Far East.

"Gabon's elephants are under siege because of an illegal international market that has driven ivory prices in the region up significantly,” noted President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, who was not directly involved in the study. “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."

Co-author Stephen Blake of the Max Planck Institute said there are several basic steps that international organizations and African governments can do to protect forest elephants.

"Forest elephants need two things: they need adequate space in which to range normally, and they need protection,” he said. “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."

Forest elephants are slightly smaller than the more popular African savannah elephant, which has been considered by many to be a separate species. Conservationists stress the forest elephants play a vital role in the ecosystem of tropical forests.

"A rain forest without elephants is a barren place,” said Lee White, head of Gabon's National Parks Service. “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.

“These new results illustrate starkly just how dramatic the situation has become,” he added. “Our actions over the coming decade will determine whether this iconic species survives."