By Dr. Becker
Elephants around the globe are facing serious threats to their existence, and this is particularly true among forest elephants living in Central Africa.
Smaller and more elusive than savannah elephants, forest elephants live in densely wooded forests where they play an essential role in their surrounding ecosystem — many seeds from rain forest trees must pass through these elephants' digestive tract before they will germinate.1
Forest elephants are also difficult to track using visual identification methods, but it was thought that providing large, remote protected areas would help safeguard the elephants against threats like habitat fragmentation and other human activities.
The Minkébé National Park (MNP) in the Central African nation of Gabon, an area with a large elephant population, was created especially for the purpose of protecting forest elephants and includes a surrounding no-hunting zone.
Unfortunately, new data published in Current Biology suggests the remote national park is not enough to protect this vulnerable species.2
Forest Elephant Population Plummets by 80 Percent
"MNP held the highest densities of elephants in Central Africa at the turn of the century, and was considered a critical sanctuary for forest elephants because of its relatively large size and isolation," researchers noted in Current Biology.
When they assessed population changes in the park between 2004 and 2014, however, which they did using two modeling approaches, they found a startling loss. According to American Veterinarian:3
"The distance sampling method was used to estimate elephant density along line transects that were placed within selected sampling sites … The second approach, the dung-rainfall model, estimated elephant density by measuring dung density."
Overall, the researchers estimated the elephant populations declined from 78 percent to 81 percent during the study period. This represents a loss of more than 25,000 elephants, from a population of 33,000 to 35,000 elephants in 2006 to between 7,400 and 6,500 in 2014.4
Ivory Trade, Poaching Responsible for Most of the Losses
The study particularly noted a decrease in dung density along the park's border with Cameroon, an area with active ivory trade, indicating "intense cross-border poaching."5
There's also a Cameroonian road located just over 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles) from the national park.6 Study author John Poulsen, Ph.D., of Duke University and the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux in Gabon told National Geographic:7
"We can no longer assume that apparently large and remote protected areas will conserve species — poachers will go anywhere that a profit can be made …
A corollary of this is that cross-border poaching is a major threat to species protection, and bilateral and multilateral efforts are essential for conservation. Species cross borders, and so do poachers."
African elephants are currently listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. However, the researchers suggested Central African elephants should be listed as critically endangered, as they're at serious risk of extinction. Poulsen continued:8
"Because Gabon is thought to hold the largest remaining population of forest elephants, the implication is that 'forest elephants are in even more trouble than previously believed …
With less than 100,000 elephants across all of Central Africa, the subspecies is in danger of extinction if governments and conservation agencies do not act fast."
While Gabon created a national park police in 2012, resources are often lacking to fully protect the elephants, monitor their populations and enforce regulations.
Unfortunately, ivory markets continue to thrive not only domestically in Africa but also internationally.9 According to the researchers, the ultimate solution to protecting forest elephants lies in eliminating ivory trade.
International ivory trade has been banned since 1990, but domestic sales are still allowed in many countries. China's announcement that it would ban ivory trade by the end of 2017 is being heralded as a game changer, as the country accounts for up to 70 percent of the global demand for ivory.10
However, whether this will simply push the ivory trade further underground remains to be seen. It's thought that Central African elephants are also being killed for bushmeat, "but the scale of the problem as yet to be determined," according to the World Wildlife Fund.11
The authors of the featured study further noted that protecting forest elephants from extinction will require coordinated law enforcement activities between countries, the creation of protected areas that span several countries as well as the resources and willingness to prosecute those who engage in international wildlife crimes.12