The largest ever study of the African forest elephant says it will be driven to extinction unless an international effort is made to stop poaching and the trade of ivory.
The report, published in PLoS One, shows that 62 percent of all forest elephants have been killed for ivory over the last decade with almost a third of the land they were able to live in 10 years ago now too dangerous for them.
West and North Africa Programme Manager for the Zoological Society of London, Chris Ransom said: “This study confirms what we've all feared: the catastrophic slide of forest elephants to extinction as a result of illegal poaching for the ivory trade. Coupled with the evidence of the massive seizures of ivory seen in East and South East Asia over the last couple of years it is clear that we must take action to reduce the demand for ivory in these nations if our efforts to secure a future for the forest elephant are not to be in vain.”
Dr. John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation, co-author of the paper, said: “Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million square kilometres, but now cower in just a quarter of that area. 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.”
Research carried out by the CITES-MIKE program has shown that the increase in poaching levels across Africa since 2006 is strongly correlated with trends in consumer demand in the Far East, and that poaching levels are also strongly linked with governance at the national level and poverty at the local scale. This has resulted in escalating elephant massacres in areas previously thought to be safe.
Distinct from the African savannah elephant, the African forest elephant is slightly smaller than its better known relative and is considered by many to be a separate species. They play a vital role in maintaining the biodiversity of one of the Earth’s critical carbon sequestering tropical forests in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and Republic of Congo.
Prof. Lee White CBE, head of Gabon's National Parks Service, said: “A rain forest without elephants is a barren place. 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.”
Earlier this month, the government of Gabon announced the loss of approximately 11,000 forest elephants in Minkébé National Park between 2004 and 2012; previously holding Africa’s largest forest elephant population.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon said: “Gabon's elephants are under siege because of an illegal international market that has driven ivory prices in the region up significantly. I call upon the international community to join us in this fight. If we do not reverse the tide fast the African elephant will be exterminated.”
The study arrives as 178 countries gather in Bangkok to discuss wildlife trade issues, including poaching and ivory smuggling.