African elephants afraid of roads because they mean danger
The study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants claims new road building has stopped the elephants roaming their traditional ranges and keeps them penned in much smaller areas.
The scientists say that even in the largest remaining wilderness areas the animals shun roads and that forest elephants roaming wide landscapes probably no longer exist anywhere in central Africa.
The study, in which 28 forest elephants were fitted with collars which allowed them to be tracked by satellite, found that roads, especially those outside parks and protected areas, attract poachers and have become formidable barriers to elephant movement.
In the Congo Basin, an area rich in biodiversity containing the second largest rainforest on Earth, a dramatic expansion of road building is underway which the report warns will result in the eventual loss of both the forest wilderness and see elephant numbers plummet.
By keeping away from the roads the elephants may avoid being shot by poachers but it stops them foraging over wide areas for food, restricts their diet and forces them to compete with other animals for limited resources, which leads to over-grazing of vegetation.
Eventually, the report says, it reduces the genetic fitness of small and fragmented populations increasing the risk of extinction.
The study's lead author, Dr Stephen Blake, said: "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.
"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."
Since the report was compiled, new roads had resulted in enormous losses of wilderness areas in three of the six sites studied in the Republic of Congo and neighbouring Gabon but the researchers say there is still time to plan developments which take roads away from wilderness areas and which reduces the risk of poaching.
"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," said Dr Blake.
"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."