Elephants have been recently extirpated from extensive areas of Africa and even sites thought to be well-protected are no longer safe from ivory poaching. Bouché et al.’s (2011) study examined the West and Central African savannahs, and showed that the once large savannah elephant populations had been reduced to several small pockets of a few hundred animals in many cases, with only about 7,000 individuals remaining in total. Shortly after that publication, in early 2012, several hundred elephants were killed in a matter of a few months, in the Park holding most of Cameroon’s savannah elephants; the poachers were well-armed and on horseback. In mid-November 2012, the same poachers were heading back to the same Park – but the Cameroon army were alerted before they arrived. In February 2013, the Gabonese Government announced the loss of at least half of the elephants in Minkebe National Park; as many as 11,000 individuals may have been killed between 2004 and 2012. The rapid increases in demand for, and price of, ivory in China, and the ease of sale of ivory in China the persistent lack of effective governance in Central Africa and a proliferation of unprotected roads that provide access to hunters combine to facilitate illegal ivory poaching, transport and trade. Forest elephant population and range will continue to decline unless conditions change dramatically.
Other threats and management issues also affect forest elephants. Unlike other tropical forests, deforestation is very low in Central Africa, although increasing. Nevertheless, land use pressure, habitat loss, and human-elephant conflict also threaten this species and will likely increase as industrial agriculture, such as oil palm for biofuel production, develops in the near future in Africa in general and Central Africa in particular. While these management issues will likely increase with accelerating land use changes, the immediate, and very serious threat to the persistence of this species remains ivory poaching.
Our analysis identified several factors likely to contribute to decline and demonstrated the importance of law enforcement for persistence of elephants. Similar factors were also found to be important in recent analyses of a very different dataset- carcass data from the MIKE sites – where higher levels of elephant poaching, as expressed by the proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE) were associated with sites where law enforcement capacity was lower, and in countries with poor governance. Governance in our study was represented by the CPI, whereas the MIKE analysis up to 2009 incorporated both CPI and several government effectiveness indicators used by the World Bank (which can be found in their website). However, in 2012, the MIKE analysis used only the CPI as the proxy for governance. Because the CPI is strongly associated with other factors within countries (rule of law, governance, development), it may be considered as a proxy for overall functioning of civil society of each country, and indeed development variables associated with poverty were also found to be associated with PIKE in both 2009 and 2012. A previous analysis using data from the African Elephant Database suggesting a link between elephant decline and poor governance was criticized, because latitude was a better explanatory variable and the data were collected using different methods of varying quality. The more recent analysis using the 2007 AED showed that the “country” variable, a complex interaction of human development and governance factors, explained elephant density very well. In contrast to the AED’s quite variable data, we used highly comparable data obtained within a single vegetation type (closed canopy forest). Corruption in general is increasingly a focus of international attention, whether in the wildlife realm or more broadly.
Currently the Red List classifies African elephants (L. africana) as Vulnerable, and the Central African population as Endangered. Current losses (62% between 2002–2011) combined with previous losses indicate a decline of more than 80% in less than two elephant generations, ca. 25 years. The criterion for listing a species as Critically Endangered is when that species has declined by >80% in ten years, or three generations, whichever is the longer. If, conservatively, there were half a million forest elephants in the Congo Basin in 1937 (three elephant generations ago) then about 80% have now been lost. The causes of the decline are unlikely to abate in the short term, and indeed may worsen. This strongly suggests consideration of an uplisting of the Central African forest elephant subpopulation status to Critically Endangered, under the IUCN red list criteria A4b,d (population reduction, and current and projected levels of exploitation).
Remaining large landscapes of major importance for elephants comprise national parks embedded in land-use matrices including logging concessions, where wildlife guards operate in both park and concession. However, current site-based interventions in the region are generally inadequate to protect elephants, because conservation budgets are below that needed to achieve management success and local interventions do not mitigate macro-scale threats (i.e. infrastructure development, governance issues, and ivory demand). Effective multi-level action is imperative to save forest elephants. We strongly agree with the recommendations of the African Elephant Action plan, of which the highest priority objective was the reduction of poaching and trade in elephant products.
In 2012, China submitted a document to CITES on how it will improve its internal ivory trade, as internal and international awareness of the problem grows. China’s wildlife officials, among others, attended a wildlife anti-trafficking workshop in Gabon in early 2012. At the 2012 World Conservation Congress, two specific resolutions were passed to enhance the protection of elephants both in the range states and in the ivory-consuming countries, and a specific wildlife-crime related resolution was passed at the same time. In November 2012, the US State department clearly outlined a zero-tolerance approach to wildlife crime and many governments, INTERPOL, the World Customs Association and others are collaborating in international efforts to curb ivory (and other wildlife product) trafficking - partly for the wildlife itself, and also because the strong links with global organised crime and security are recognized. These diplomatic efforts are critical, but we emphasize the importance of in situ enforcement investment to protect the remaining populations of this species. However, curbing demand for ivory is key, if forest elephants are to survive.
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