Two-Thirds of African Forest Elephants Killed in Ivory Trade in Only a Decade
African forest elephants are in serious decline, according to a new study. Their numbers have decreased by a staggering 62 percent across Central Africa over the past 10 years. While scientists knew that the population has plummeted, the findings have confirmed their worst fears: the elephant may be headed for extinction in as soon as a decade.
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The new findings, published in the journal PLOS One, were discovered by the Wildlife Conservation Society and several other conservation groups. In order to assess the population numbers and the decline, researchers spent nine years and over 91,600 person-days in the field. They walked over 8,000 miles as they took about 11,000 samples of dung piles. From these piles, they were able to measure the population abundance of the animals. In addition, the researchers recorded signs of humans, such as snares and bullet casings.
In the end, they found that the total population fell by about 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. That's less than 10 percent of its potential size.
Currently, there are only about 100,000 forest elephants remaining in the forests of central Africa--a sharp contrast to the one million that once ranged across the habitat 30 years ago. Their slightly larger cousins, the savanna elephants, are doing a bit better. There are about 400,000 remaining.
The forest elephant is an elusive subspecies of African elephant that inhabits the densely wooded rainforests of west and central Africa. Their ears are more oval shaped than the larger savanna elephant, and their tusks are straighter and pointed downward. They can usually be found in areas where there are still blocks of thick forest left, but logging and other activities have slowly cut down their habitat.
The drastic population decline is not just due to habitat loss; it's also due to poaching. In fact, the driving factor behind the population loss is the ivory trade. Just last month, Gabon announced the deaths of about 11,000 forest elephants between 2004 and 2012. Since ivory receives such high prices on the black market, poachers continue to hunt and slaughter elephants.
Conservationists suggest that about one-third of the habitat where African forest elephants were living 10 years ago has become dangerous for the animals. Road networks that are meant for logging have made it easier for poachers to access previously inaccessible areas. They're able to speed forward and keep up with elephants in vehicles, and can bring in equipment to better hunt the animals.
These findings come just in time for the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The event is currently taking place in Bangkok from March 3 to 14. Already, a Thailand minister has announced that her country will crack down on the ivory trade, and will no longer allow a legal version of it to take place.
While many conservationists applaud these actions, there still remains the issue of the illegal trade. Without strict policing and control, it's difficult to prevent poachers from killing elephants. Some African countries have actually suggested that a legal trade, where ivory can be taken from naturally deceased elephants, could help deflate black market prices. It could also encourage local farmers and villagers to protect elephants since they would become a natural resource.
Discussions are ongoing at the CITES meeting, and a final decision when it comes to the ivory trade has yet to be made.