African forest elephants may face extinction sooner than thought: study


Oliver Milman

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Forest-dwelling elephants are likely to face extinction far more quickly than previously assumed because their sluggish reproduction rate cannot keep pace with rampant poaching and habitat loss, a new study has found.

The first comprehensive research into forest elephant demographics found that even if poaching was curbed, it will take nearly 100 years for the species just to recover the losses suffered in the past decade. The forest elephant population has crashed by more than 60% since 2002, with the species now inhabiting less than a quarter of its potential range of the Congo basin in Africa.

“The slow reproductive rate as well as present poaching rates in the central African area does not bode well for forest elephants,” said Andrea Turkalo of the Wildlife Conservation Society, lead author of the research.

Forest elephants are an elusive subspecies of African elephants found in the rainforests of central and western Africa. They are smaller than the elephants that roam the open savannah of Africa and their tusks are straighter and point downwards rather than curve outwards.

It was previously assumed that the species gives birth at a similar rate to savannah elephants but Turkalo’s analysis of births and deaths from 1990 to 2013 in the Sangha Trinational, a World Heritage-listed forest in the Congo Basin, found significant differences.

The research found that not only does it take more than 20 years for female forest elephants to begin reproducing, but they also give birth only once every five to six years. This reproduction rate means that population growth is around three times slower than savannah elephants.

As a result, forest elephants “appear to be significantly more sensitive to human-induced mortality” than their grassland-wandering relatives. Around one in three forest elephant deaths are due to poachers seeking to profit from the ivory trade, or for bushmeat, which is meat derived from non-domesticated wildlife.

Should forest elephants continue to suffer poaching losses, while their homes are razed for timber and agriculture, humans will be responsible for eradicating one of the largest creatures left on the planet.

“I am really worried about the future of this species,” said George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University biologist and a co-author of the paper.

“They face a very real chance of extinction if ivory poaching continues unabated. Our work indicates that recovery from the extensive poaching they have experienced requires decades, and we really don’t see evidence to make us optimistic that we are going to get that sort of reprieve.”

Forest elephants are a shy but valuable part of their woodland ecosystem as they disperse seeds far and wide, which is crucial for the survival of various plants. But they are also valued by ivory connoisseurs because their tusks are harder than those of savannah elephants. While the international trade of ivory is banned, a black market operates to satisfy demand for trinkets and bogus medicines in east Asia.

Turkalo said she has seen a “vast change” in forest elephant habitat in the 25 years she has spent studying the animals in central Africa, driven by new development and an increase in the human population.

“We are now surrounded on all sides by commercial logging and because of the influx of people attracted to the area there has been an escalation in poaching,” she said. “This poaching feeds directly into the ivory trade since we still have a number of sizable tuskers.”

The research, published in Journal of Applied Ecology, cites the “urgent need to stem poaching”. A measure to be debated at the IUCN congress in Hawaii this week would ban the domestic trade in ivory, but many elephant conservationists believe far more will need to be done to safeguard the species in the long term.