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More than 80 percent of Gabon’s Rare Forest Elephant Species Taken by Poachers

More horrendous news for the beleaguered elephant: Forest elephants, a sub-species of elephant living in an area that had been considered a sanctuary in the Central African country of Gabon, are rapidly being picked off by illegal poachers, who are primarily coming from the bordering country of Cameroon.  More than 80 percent have been taken in a decade–a loss of about 25,000 elephants– researchers report in the February 20 issue of  Current Biology. 

“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,” says John Poulsen of Duke University and the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux in Gabon. “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,” the assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment warned in a news release about the finding.

“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.” — John Poulsen of Duke University

“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,” Poulsen said. “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.”

A forest elephant in Gabon. Loxodonta africana cyclotis is the elusive smaller cousin of the more familiar savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana). Both species—forest elephants and African elephants—are classified as endangered on the World Conservation Union's Red List. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.
A forest elephant in Gabon. Loxodonta africana cyclotis is the elusive smaller cousin of the more familiar savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana). Both sub-species of African elephant—forest elephants and savanna elephants—are classified as endangered on the World Conservation Union’s Red List. Scientists believe that declaring the forest elephant a distinct separate species would allow for it to be reclassified as Critically Endangered, which may improve its protection and prospects for avoidance of extinction. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.

According to the news statement:

The researchers estimated the number of elephants in the forest in 2014 using established methods based on surveys of elephant dung. They then compared population size estimates for the year 2014 to estimates that had been calculated in the same way in 2004.

Poulsen says they were not surprised to find that forest elephants had declined in recent years. But they were surprised to see that the forest elephants had suffered so much in just ten years’ time.

The researchers say the most important step to saving forest elephants is to reduce the demand for ivory.

“China’s recently announced ban of domestic ivory trade will help enormously, if it is effectively implemented,” he says. “The international community needs to put pressure on all remaining nations that allow the trade so that all legal trade is stopped. We need conservation funds and political will to put a stop to the slaughter.”

Recognizing Forest Elephants as a Distinct Species

The researchers also advocate for recognizing forest elephants as a distinct species, separate from African savanna elephants. Such a distinction is supported by genetic and morphological evidence and would help to draw attention to the forgotten forest elephants.

Despite the findings, Poulsen says he is optimistic that forest elephants will survive, although they will most likely exist only in restricted areas within well-protected national parks. Their decline will surely be felt throughout the forest and beyond.

“Elephants are ecosystem engineers that play major roles in seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and browsing and damage to vegetation,” Poulsen says. “We have very little idea about how the removal of elephants from large extents of Central African forest is going to alter forest composition and structure, and thus the ecosystem services that the forests provide.”

Researchers from the National Parks Agency of Gabon, the University of South Florida, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, the World Wildlife Fund Central Africa Regional Program Office, Gabon’s Institute for Tropical Ecology Research, and the University of Stirling conducted the study with Poulsen. Duke-affiliated co-authors were Connie Clark,  Amelia Meier, Cooper Rosin, Sarah Moore, Sally Koerner and Vincent Medjibe.

The 2004 and 2014 surveys used in the new study were funded by four agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants program.

CITATION: ”Poaching Empties Central African Wilderness of Forest Elephants,” John R. Poulsen, Sally E. Koerner, Sarah Moore, Vincent P. Medjibe, Stephen Blake, Connie J. Clark, Mark Ella Akou, Michael Fay, Amelia Meier, Joseph Okouyi, Cooper Rosen and Lee J.T. White; Current Biology; Feb. 20, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.01.023

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology, published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists.

Blog post based on news materials provided by Current Biology and Duke University.

Related post: 11,000 Elephants Slaughtered in African Forest (by J. Michael Fay, 2013)