Elephants face same extinction fate as woolly mammoth

Forest elephant (Image: Stephen Blake) Forest elephants are smaller than their savannah-dwelling cousins and have straighter tusks

The fate of the forest elephant rests in our hands. But will it go the way of the woolly mammoth, as it is hunted for ivory and its habitat is destroyed?

Start Quote

Forest elephants are being poached at an alarming rate”

End Quote Biologist Stephen Blake

Have you ever wondered why hawthorn trees have such vicious thorns? Like many spiny plants, this is a defence they have evolved to avoid being eaten - by giant herbivores, including elephants.

Throughout the UK there are similar evolutionary clues nodding to the not so long-extinct plant-eating giants that once roamed here.

Up until about 15,000 years ago modern elephants' ancestors - mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres and a host of other elephant-like mammals - were spread throughout the globe.

Mammoths were "just a species of elephant," says Professor Adrian Lister of the UK's Natural History Museum.

"And until the end of the Pleistocene, there were millions of them throughout the globe, including in northern Europe and North America."

SEPARATE SPECIES

  • Last year, scientists confirmed that forest elephants were genetically distinct from African savannah elephants
  • Forest elephants have straighter tusks and more rounded ears
  • They also share features with Asian elephants with five toes on the forefeet and four toes on the hindfeet

But, as the climate shifted, their open grassland habitat was invaded, either by forests or tundra.

"That loss of habitat squeezed the species down into small fragmentary populations," says Professor Lister. "And human hunting may have helped mammoths on their way to extinction once they were in this perilous state."

Now, it seems, we could be repeating history.

Under siege

The remaining three elephant species have been squeezed down into three areas - Asia, the African savannah and the forests of central Africa. And as well as the endangered Asian elephant, the relatively diminutive African forest elephant - only recently shown to be a distinct species - is now in crisis.

Forest elephant in a national park in Congo (Image: Stephen Blake) Forest elephants' habitat protected them, to some extent, from the "ivory holocaust" of colonial times

Forest elephants in Africa, to some extent, escaped the "ivory holocaust" during colonial times, and the widespread slaughter of their savannah-dwelling cousins for their ivory in the 1970s and 1980s. This was largely because they were hidden away in their obscure forest habitat in the vast Congo Basin.

Stephen Blake is an elephant expert from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, who worked on forest elephants for more than a decade for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He says that this habitat is now being chopped up.

"Forest elephants need vast uninterrupted areas of wilderness to range through.

"But as logging and resource extraction become more important in the region, the animals are squeezed into smaller pockets of forest where they become easily accessible to poachers.

"There are no good estimates of how many forest elephants remain - probably some tens of thousands, but they are being poached at an alarming rate."

A road in the Congo basin, built to provide access for loggers (Image: Stephen Blake) Road-building is fragmenting the forest elephants' habitat

Surprisingly, the biggest problem is not the destruction of forest habitat for logging - although this is damaging. It is actually the construction of roads that is doing the most damage to the species.

Kate Evans, a US conservationist and founder of the charity Elephants for Africa says: "The roads go straight through the heart of the forest, so they also provide easy access for poachers."

And where these roads are not protected by law enforcement, forest elephants are petrified of them.

Dr Blake explains: "If you put a 20 mile ring of death around your house, the chances are you won't want to go more than 15 miles from home.

"And if that ring [closes in], you're going to feel besieged.

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I think the extinction of the mammoth is a salutary lesson that applies to modern extinctions”

End Quote Professor Adrian Lister Natural History Museum

"You won't be able to go to the places you need to, you won't be able to see your friends, you will become imprisoned, and most likely the food will start to run out. It's just like that with forest elephants."

The illegal ivory trade - fuelled by civil unrest and organised crime in some central African countries - supports the poaching.

Kate Evans says that forest elephants' relatively straight and dense tusks are highly attractive to carvers and poachers.

"Most of the market is in Asia," she says. With a growing middle class that have access to cash, we have seen an explosion in the demand for ivory there."

According to Traffic International, the wildlife trade monitoring network, organised criminal gangs in Asia are shipping large quantities illegal ivory from Africa.

While in central Africa, ivory products are openly sold in village shops.

Shop in the main street in Bangassou advertising elephant hunting munitions. In some central African villages, shops openly advertise elephant-hunting munitions
'Empty forests'

Just as these giants need their forest, the forest needs them. Dr Blake describes the elephants as "mega-gardeners".

The researcher and his colleagues spent several months camping in the dense forests tracking the elephants. He has found that, during their lumbering treks, forest elephants can vacuum up hundreds of pieces of fruit from under a single tree.

They then deposit the seeds they have eaten with a generous helping of fertiliser - in the guise of elephant dung - throughout the forest. Another side effect of their fruit-rich diet is that they probably defecate around 17 times per day.

"Almost every pile of elephant dung contains viable seeds from up to 16 different plant species and thousands of individual seeds," says Dr Blake.

"Tropical forests are so diverse that a seed that lands near its parent plant has a suite of seed predators and pathogens waiting to nab it," he explains.

"So if you're a seed and you land under your parent, the probability of you surviving is almost zero."

Forest elephants, however, can take seeds several kilometres from their parent plant.

African forest elephants (Image: Bruce Davidson/ Naturepl.com)

"It's like the parable from the bible - some seeds will land on stony ground, some on poor soil, but some will land on good soil...

"With lots of elephants roaming the forests, at least some seeds are likely to land in the right place to grow," says Dr Blake.

And a myriad of other species depend on the structure of the forest that the elephants create.

"Insects, mosses, lichens, invertebrates, other vertebrates; a whole gamut of animal, plant and fungal species are specific to certain trees or plants," explains Dr Blake.

"If we lose elephants, we're going to lose those trees; forest biodiversity as a whole is going to diminish."

Professor Lister says that forest elephants are suffering from the same "double whammy" that claimed the woolly mammoths - habitat loss and hunting.

"Today both of those sides of the pinch are caused by humans," he says.

Elephant dung "garden" of germinating seeds Old piles of elephant dung become fertile grounds for seed germination in the forests

"I think the extinction of the mammoth is a salutary lesson that applies to modern extinctions."

Dr Blake says that time has already run out for the forest elephant.

It could be too late for the lessons we could learn from the mammoth and the mastodon to make a positive difference.

As resource extraction from central Africa becomes more important, more roads and bigger roads will cut through the forests of the Congo basin.

Without effective wildlife management, the elephants will eventually have nowhere left to hide, Dr Blake says.

"We have seen some exciting initiatives like the development of national parks and landscape scale management programmes developed over the last 20 years, but the resources needed to manage these areas properly are pitiful compared to those available for resource extraction."

"I think we've basically blown it."

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