The battle for the survival of the forest elephant can be won


Richard Ruggiero, National Geographic

Date Published

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In Gabon’s Minkébé National Park, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) declined by approximately 80 percent between 2004 and 2014, as reported in a recent publication supported in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both savanna and forest elephants are declining across most of the African continent driven primarily by Asia’s demand for ivory. What is happening in Minkébé National Park is particularly alarming, as this area was once home to the highest densities of forest elephants in Central Africa and was established as a stronghold and sanctuary for the species. What do these findings tell us about the future of forest elephants more broadly, and how should we prioritize efforts to save the species? Dr. Richard Ruggiero, chief of the Service’s Division of International Conservation, shares his thoughts.

What was your first reaction on hearing about the devastating decline in elephant numbers from Minkébé National Park (MNP)?

The results were not surprising, unfortunately. In a mission to the park in 2011, we saw evidence of large-scale elephant poaching and other illicit activities. Based on recent observations of poaching incidents; genetic sampling of ivory seizures traced back to the tri-national area of Cameroon, Gabon and Congo, including MNP; and intelligence about large movements of ivory from Gabon to other countries, we knew significant poaching had occurred in this protected area and expected to see a severe decline in the park’s elephant numbers.

Why is MNP, and Gabon as a nation, so important for elephants?

Gabon is home to more than half of the world’s remaining forest elephants. In the mid-1990s, newly released satellite maps indicated Gabon’s relatively untouched forested areas were part of a continuous, interconnected forest landscape stretching from eastern Republic of the Congo westward through most of Gabon. In 2000, Mike Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society confirmed during his Megatransect that Gabon’s large forested areas, devoid of roads and with low human density, were a haven for wildlife. Crocodiles, chimpanzees, forest elephants and other wildlife displayed naïve behavior. The fact that they were not overtly fearful of humans let us know that they had probably not yet been threatened by hunting or other human activities.

Forest elephants have been declining throughout their range during the last several decades. Gabon’s forests represent a fortress for the region – the last probable area where conservation of forest elephants and other large species might be successful on the natural, mega-landscape scale. The country’s low human population density means there is much less competition between humans and wildlife for natural resources than in many of the other Central African countries. Gabon’s vast forested areas provide good habitat – the best real estate – for forest elephants, gorillas and other species. Most importantly, Gabon has the political will and leadership – both in the capital and at the village level – that is needed to conserve forest elephants and other wildlife.

Among all of Gabon’s protected areas, MNP is the largest and least accessible. At the turn of the century, this area held the highest densities of forest elephants in all of Africa. The recent loss of 80 percent of MNP’s elephants in a mere decade should be seen as a cry for help from the species, an indication that no place, no matter how remote, is safe from elephant poaching. As Lee White, executive secretary of Gabon’s National Parks Agency (ANPN) once said, “The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon.”

How did MNP change from an area without poaching pressure to the killing grounds for 25,000 elephants in 10 years?

The elephants in MNP have been exposed to poaching on two fronts. To a lesser degree, they are being poached from within Gabon, possibly facilitated by logging roads to timber concessions at the west and south of the park. However, the majority of elephant poaching seems to have originated in Cameroon, on the northern border of MNP. This emphasizes the threat of cross-border poaching and the need for cross-border collaboration to tackle the problem. White indicates corruption involving poachers from Cameroon is playing a major role in facilitating entry, exit and shipping of poached ivory.

Gabon is unquestionably the last great bastion for forest elephants and therefore is a great focus for elephant poachers and ivory traffickers. As long as the market for ivory remains strong and the punishments weak, there will be enough incentives for people to continue to poach elephants and traffic ivory.

Sadly, the pressure is not just on elephants but on all natural resources, threatening biodiversity and national security. On the mission with the ANPN in 2011, we discovered that what was thought to be a small illegal gold mine in MNP had grown exponentially in only a few years – to a human population of approximately 6,800 with around 300 people coming and going each day. Estimates vary, but approximately 27 nationalities were represented among those living and working illegally in the mine, and only 200 to 350 of the people at the mine were believed to be Gabonese. In addition, the illegal mine was located near the epicenter of a major Ebola outbreak in the mid-1990s that caused declines of more than 90 percent of gorillas in a study area in neighboring Congo, highlighting the risk for a pandemic.

Until the Gabonese government sent troops in support of ANPN and was able to close the mine in 2011, the area had already seen the slaughter of more than 10,000 forest elephants during the four preceding years as well as a range of other illegal activities, including indentured servitude, child labor, prostitution and bushmeat, wildlife, and arms trafficking.

Is it “too little, too late” to stop the decline of forest elephants?

In any crisis situation, including the crisis affecting forest elephants, the best (and sometimes only) thing you can do is triage: Stabilize the situation, analyze the threat, and assess where your efforts are likely to have the greatest chance of success, given the resources available. The Service has been doing this, focusing on elephants and other endangered wildlife threatened by trafficking; we are testing and tweaking our approach as needed. We know what needs to be done and how to do it. Now we need to scale it up. It’s a question of amplitude and bandwidth, as well as one of regional and international cooperation.

The discovery of the immense illegal gold mine in MNP was a significant wake-up call, alerting us to the severity and complications of the elephant poaching crisis. It led directly to our cooperative strategy in Gabon, which is based on supporting the type of applied research that leads to improved management – such as documenting the loss in MNP’s elephants and how poaching was being carried out, reducing threats in the most efficient and effective manner, strengthening the capacity of ANPN as a key partner in the region and continuing to build the political will necessary to ensure long-term viability.

How does the situation in MNP compare to protected areas in the rest of the country?

There are greater logistical and practical challenges in MNP than in other areas in Gabon, but we are hopeful some of the lessons learned in other parks with less severe challenges will help turn the tide in this more difficult area. In collaboration with ANPN, we are working on a model parks system in Gabon, focusing our efforts on eliminating poaching in one protected area, then adapting and replicating that approach in other protected areas.

Simultaneous to our travels to MNP to investigate the extent of the illegal gold mine, Fay conducted overflights and discovered at least 32 bull elephants had been killed for their ivory in the Wonga-Wongue Presidential Reserve. Together with ANPN, we made the decision to initially focus our efforts on strengthening law enforcement in the reserve, which is located south of Libreville on the coast. The results were encouraging, and within one year, we turned the tide and achieved zero poaching in the reserve. With ANPN, we are now building on this model to adapt and replicate the approach in other protected areas.

What will it take to turn things around for Central Africa’s forest elephants?

Improved law enforcement is critical. Organized traffickers in Central Africa are increasingly turning to ivory. It’s a basic risk-benefit analysis; ivory is relatively easy to get, especially where corruption is widespread, and the potential punishment is outweighed by the potential gain, meaning the risk and cost are low. Targeting poachers alone is not sufficient. With each arrest of a poacher, there is another person in line ready to supply the demand. Anti-poaching patrols and wildlife crime cases need to follow the money and break up collusion and corruption at higher levels, including international networks. For this to be successful, we need international cooperation among countries that have a market for ivory and intermediate countries where ivory passes through along transit routes via ship or air.

Gabon has raised the stakes for poachers and traffickers with better enforcement on the ground, increased judicial attention and stricter penalties.

Aside from more effective anti-poaching and law enforcement efforts, there is an urgent need to reduce demand for ivory. In 2013, the U.S. conducted its first ivory destruction event, crushing six tons of ivory and sending a clear message that the nation will not tolerate wildlife crime that threatens to wipe out Africa’s elephants. This was not the first ivory destruction event in the world – the first was in Kenya in 1989, and Gabon had also destroyed its ivory stock of about five tons in 2012 – but it helped to emphasize the urgency and catalyze many other ivory destruction events around the world, including in China. Last summer, a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States. China, which remains a key driver behind the illicit ivory trade, recently announced a ban on its domestic ivory market, and their efforts seem earnest. These are all important steps for the future of elephants in Africa, including Gabon. The battle for the survival of the forest elephant can be won, but it will take all of our help.