Forest Elephants Are Running Out of Space
Tropical forests with multiple access points for hunters have fewer elephants
NEW YORK (August 16, 2011)—The survival of the forest elephants of Central Africa depends on limiting access to rain forests via roads, settlements, and other entry points to otherwise inaccessible habitat, according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and other partners
The study says that entry points to the rain forests facilitated by roads, rivers, or other access points have led to more hunters and fewer elephants. Furthermore, roads and other forms of infrastructure construction in the countries where forest elephants still exist usually lack adequate, or any, anti-poaching efforts, putting the future of Africa’s lesser known cousin of the savanna elephant in peril.
The study appears in a recent edition of the scientific journal Ecological Applications. The authors of the study include: Charles B. Yackulic of Princeton University (formerly of Columbia University); Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Fiona Maisels of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Stirling; and Stephen Blake of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology.
“While the science behind testing the effects of access to forest elephant habitat is necessarily complex, the bottom line is pretty obvious, and our findings support the hypothesis that multiple access points to tropical forests are detrimental to elephants and other wide ranging species,” said Dr. Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Building upon previous studies that examined the effects of roads on forest elephant densities, the researchers examined the effects of multiple access points by systematically counting and mapping the location of elephant dung across large landscapes. Dung counts are necessary because forest elephants are elusive animals and difficult to count directly, so their dung provides a rough index of abundance.
The access point variables used in the study included distances to settlements, roads, rivers, and combinations of all three in five different national parks in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The elephant data had been collected under the auspices of the Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants program of CITES.
The study showed that the negative impacts of hunting of species like forest elephants extend far from settlements and other access points because these species range over such large distances.
Researchers found that levels of human presence in different landscapes varied between the five national parks examined. For instance, Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo contains many human settlements and far fewer dung piles than Minkébé National Park in Gabon, which has only recently been made accessible to humans by the construction of logging roads.
The conservation implications of the study underscore the need for development plans on both local and national levels in the Congo Basin.
Dr. Charles Yackulic, the study’s lead author, said: “The proliferation of access points to formerly remote, inaccessible areas is devastating to elephants and other wide-ranging species. Forest elephants are important sentinels for these landscapes, and their disappearance is the herald of more widespread declines in wildlife which may lead to general ecosystem decay.”
Dr. James Deutsch, Director of WCS’s Africa Program, noted: “The rain forests of Central Africa are under increasing pressure from growing human populations and infrastructure. Conservation plans informed by the ecological needs of forest elephants and other large-bodied species need to be incorporated into development policies for Central Africa.”
Dr. Steve Blake of WCS and the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, added: “Unfortunately governments, development agencies, and private industry—all of which fuel infrastructure development—have known this for a long time, and still little is being done to improve the geography of infrastructure planning at local, national and regional levels. This latest study underscores the fact that time is running out to do things right. 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.”
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The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.