Forest elephants 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. Researchers reporting in Current Biology on February 20 found that the forest elephant population in Gabon has dropped by more than 80 percent in a decade--a loss of about 25,000 elephants.
"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.
"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," he adds. "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."
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."
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."