New study paints grim picture for Africa’s forest elephants

African forest elephant, Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo

African forest elephant photographed by a camera trap in Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo. (Courtesy of TEAM Network and Wildlife Conservation Society)

Poaching has killed off 60 percent of Africa’s forest-dwelling elephants since 2002 alone, a new study has found.

The animals reproduce too slowly for their populations to keep up with the rise of poaching in their range in the Congo basin, according to the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Applied Ecology. As The Guardian reported:

The research found that not only does it take more than 20 years for female forest elephants to begin reproducing, but they also give birth only once every five to six years. This reproduction rate means that population growth is around three times slower than [Africa’s] savannah elephants.

“I am really worried about the future of this species,” George Wittemyer, a co-author of the paper, told The Guardian. “They face a very real chance of extinction if ivory poaching continues unabated. Our work indicates that recovery from the extensive poaching they have experienced requires decades, and we really don’t see evidence to make us optimistic that we are going to get that sort of reprieve.”

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At the turn of the 20th century, some 10 million wild elephants roamed Africa; only around 400,000 remain. An elephant is killed about every 15 minutes for its ivory, fueling an increasingly dangerous and sophisticated wildlife trafficking industry — this despite the fact that an elephant is worth more alive than dead. And while countries around the world have taken action in recent years against elephant poaching, the new study raises the urgency.

“I’ve been saying for the past few years that momentum has been building to bring the ivory wars to an end,” said M. Sanjayan, a senior scientist at Conservation International (CI) who has been studying the elephant situation in Africa for years. CI was not involved in the study.

“We’re still waiting for the tide to turn,” Sanjayan continued, “but as others have said, the war is impossible to win until the demand ebbs.”

The demand will have to ebb soon: As the study’s lead author told The Guardian, time is quickly running out.

“The slow reproductive rate as well as present poaching rates in the central African area does not bode well for forest elephants,” Andrea Turkalo of the Wildlife Conservation Society said.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director. 

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