Forest Elephants Are Running Out of Space

August 17, 2011

In the rainforests of Central Africa, hunters are finding their way into once inaccessible terrain, spelling disaster for forest elephants.

In the tropics of Central Africa, hunters are finding an increasing number of entryways into once inaccessible terrain. According to a recent study by WCS and partners, the proliferation of these forest access points is pushing the endangered forest elephant to the brink. The study, which appears in the scientific journal Ecological Applications, concludes that the survival of the region’s forest elephants depends on limiting access to their rainforest homes.

To conduct their study, the researchers systematically counted and mapped the location of elephant dung across five different national parks in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because forest elephants are elusive animals and difficult to count directly, counting their dung is a good proxy, providing a rough index of elephant abundance. The researchers factored in distances to settlements, roads, rivers, and combinations of all three types of access points. The elephant data had been collected under the auspices of the Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants program of CITES.  

The scientists found that levels of human presence in different landscapes varied between the five national parks examined. For instance, Salonga National Park in DR Congo contains many human settlements and far fewer dung piles than Minkébé National Park in Gabon, where newly constructed logging roads have only recently opened up the forest to hunters.

The conservation implications of the study underscore the need for development plans on both local and national levels in the Congo Basin. The lack of adequate anti-poaching efforts along roads and around other forms of infrastructure construction in the countries where forest elephants live further jeopardizes their future.

“This latest study underscores the fact that time is running out to do things right,” said Dr. Steve Blake of WCS and the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, and one of the study’s authors. “The good news is that there is a tiny window of opportunity still available to develop the central African interstate highway system in a strategic way that maximizes social benefits to people while minimizing ecological impacts like fragmentation and access proliferation. The problem is that in reality this costs more money than the current free-for-all infrastructure development led by the private sector, in which cost minimization is the primary consideration. Like so many environmental issues we could have a pretty decent win-win for wildlife and people if only the world was prepared to pay a little more.”

To learn more, read the press release.

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