A pair of African forest elephants, by Thomas Breuer
Following a bit of good news for elephants yesterday, here comes another heaping dose of the bad new we've come to expect. According to research released at the CITES conference today, a total of 62 percent of Africa's forest elephants have been poached in the last decade.
The article was published in PLOS One, and it's a doozy. The survey consists of work from 60 scientists who, along with conservation staff, spent 91,600 person-days from 2002-2011 tracking elephants in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. On top of the population decline, the survey found that forest elephants saw their range decline by 30 percent, largely due to human threats.
In total, the authors write that forest elephants are currently only reaching about 10 percent of their total population potential, while occupying only 25 percent of their potential range. That means that, despite massive conservation efforts to ensure elephant habitats remain undegraded, poaching is still pushing forest elephants to extinction.
"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," co-author Dr. John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation said in a release. "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."
Plots of elephant habitat in West Africa from Maisels et al. A/C are from 2002, B/D are from 2011, dark green is higher elephant density, grey areas are essentially elephant-free (deeper description available here).
Thanks to a widely-cited 2010 paper, African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are currently thought to be distinct from African savanna elephants (L. africana), and the two are the only extant species of their genus. Morphologically, the biggest difference between the two is that forest elephants tend to be smaller–males top out at about eight feet, while savanna males can hit 10-13 feet in height.
The distinction is key because the IUCN, which still groups the two species together, lists the African elephant population as increasing, despite certain local declines. That assessment, however, is based on surveys from 2005 and 2007, which don't reflect the current poaching crisis. And even if African elephants as a whole were increasing, this recent survey makes clear that forest elephants are in a serious decline.
The loss of elephants isn't simply an isolated problem, either. Elephants are obviously massive, and they have correspondingly massive effects on their environment. While the diversity-stability hypothesis is still a source of debate, the loss of forest elephants is likely to have negative effects on their habitats.
"this is not a habitat degradation issue. This is almost entirely due to poaching."
"A rain forest without elephants is a barren place," Professor Lee White, head of Gabon's National Parks Service, said. "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."
The situation is stark. The total African elephant population was over one million three decades ago. Now there are 100,000 forest elephants, and 400,000 of their larger brethren. They're being poached relentlessly for ever-higher ivory prices; the trade has become so lucrative that it's been infiltrated by African militant groups and proceeds are helping fund everything from war to the drug trade. Meanwhile, record busts (like the two ton seizure Singapore made earlier this year) aren't slowing things down.
Thailand's pledge to ban its domestic ivory trade is a large step towards at least bringing regulatory coherence to the worldwide trade–it's hard to enforce bans when not all ivory is actually banned–but the rapid decline of the elephant population is reaching full-fledged crisis territory. If comprehensive efforts to slow the trade aren't taken soon, elephants are only going to get pushed closer to the brink.