National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Elephants Imprisoned by Roads in Congo River Region, Conservationists Say

elephant-roads-1.jpg

Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

Endangered forest elephants are avoiding Central Africa’s roadways at all costs, according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants.

The animals associate roads with poaching, which is rampant in the Congo Basin, say the authors of the study published today in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE).

“Forest elephants have adopted a siege mentality, forcing populations to become increasingly confined and isolated,” the researchers say. “This in turn reduces these normally far-ranging animals’ ability to find suitable habitat, thereby threatening long-term conservation efforts.”

elephant-roads-2.jpg

By tracking 28 forest elephants with GPS collars, the researchers discovered that roads, particularly those outside of parks and protected areas, attract poachers and therefore have become formidable barriers to elephant movements. Only one of the collared elephants was monitored to have crossed a road outside of a protected area — and it did so at 14 times its normal speed.

Even in the largest remaining wilderness areas in Central Africa, the researchers said, forest elephants showed adverse reactions to roads, so that truly unconfined forest elephants traveling unfettered over wide landscapes may no longer exist anywhere in Central Africa.

The results spell bad news for these endangered pachyderms, since a boom in road-building is currently underway throughout much of the region, the authors say.

Photo by Joe Scherschel/NGS

“Forest elephants are basically living in fear of their lives in prisons created by roads. They are roaming around the woods like frightened mice rather than tranquil formidable giants of their forest realm,” said Stephen Blake, the study’s lead author.

“Forest elephants are under siege with all of the graphic images that go with it — increasing the likelihood of fear, starvation, disease, massive stress, infighting, and social disruption.”

elephant-roads-3.jpg

 Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

The siege strategy may reduce the risk from poaching, but as roadless space decreases, it will likely result in loss of access to food and important mineral deposits. This will most likely result in aggressive negative behavior among elephants from different social groups, which in turn can affect reproductive success.

Other negative impacts include overgrazing of local vegetation and reduced seed dispersal by elephants, which is vital to helping regenerate forests.

 

Elephant roads 4.jpg

Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

Since the data were collected, new road construction has already resulted in enormous losses of roadless wilderness areas in three of their six study sites in Republic of Congo and neighboring Gabon, the authors report.

Other multi-billion dollar development projects loom that include massive road development. However, the authors say there is still time to plan for wise development that includes diverting roads away from wilderness areas, and reducing poaching of elephants.

 

Elephant roads 5.jpg

Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

“A small yet very feasible shift in development planning, one that is actually good for poor local forest people and for wildlife and wilderness, would be a tremendous help to protect forest elephants and their home,” Blake said. “Planning roads to give forest elephants breathing space so that at least those in the deep forest can relax, as well as reduce the death and fear that comes with roads by reducing poaching, would be trivial in terms of cost but massively important for conservation.”

The WCS scientists who worked on the study include: Stephen Blake (who now works for the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology), Samantha Strindberg, Fiona Maisels, William Karesh, and Michael Kock. Other authors include Sharon Deem from the WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo and University of Missouri, Ludovic Momont from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Inogwabini-Bila Isia from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants.

Elephant roads 6.jpg

 Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS