African forest elephants decline by 62% in 10 years

African forest elephants by water African forest elephants face extinction if 'drastic measures' are not taken

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Forest elephant numbers have decreased by 62% across Central Africa over the last 10 years, according to a study.

The analysis confirmed fears that African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are heading for extinction, possibly within the next decade.

Conservationists said "effective, rapid, multi-level action is imperative" in order to save the elephants.

They are concerned the forest elephants are being killed for their ivory.

Results of the study, undertaken by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and several other conservation organisations, are published in the scientific journal PLoS One.

Over 60 co-authors contributed to the study, which was led by Dr Fiona Maisels, a WCS conservation scientist from the School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling, and Dr Samantha Strindberg, also a WCS conservation scientist.

"Although we were expecting to see these results, we were horrified that the decline over the period of a mere decade was over 60%," Dr Maisels told BBC Nature.

Elusive giants

African forest elephants

Findings also indicated that large areas where the elephants ranged just 10 years ago now have very few elephants remaining.

Data drive

Scientists surveyed forests in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

Dr Maisels said survey teams spent "91,600 person-days... walking over 8,000 miles (12,875km)" to compile the largest amount of African forest elephant data ever collected.

"For elephants, we can get a standardised measure of their abundance using their dung piles. There were 11,000 dung piles in our dataset," said Dr Maisels.

She said the teams also recorded important "human signs" such as snares and bullet casings during the field missions from 2002 to 2011.

The results confirmed what scientists already suspected.

"Forest elephants were increasingly uncommon in places with high human density, high levels of infrastructure such as roads, high hunting intensity, and poor governance - indicated by levels of corruption and absence of law enforcement," commented Dr Maisels.

"We were also shocked to see that huge parts of the reasonably intact African forests have lost most of their elephants."

The bigger picture

Conservationists suggest that almost one-third of the land where African forest elephants were living 10 years ago has become dangerous for animals, since poachers can access these areas using road networks meant for logging.

African forest elephant bull Many previously safe areas are now considered to be dangerous for African forest elephants

The paper has been released to coincide with the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), taking place in Bangkok from 3-14 March.

Dr Maisels explained that research from Cites' Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme, has shown that the increase in poaching levels across Africa strongly correlates with trends in consumer demand in the Far East.

Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has already agreed at this year's Cites convention that she will amend Thai laws to ban the legal trade in ivory.

Now conservationists are calling for immediate action in order to protect the remaining forest elephant populations.

"The WCS is advising that Cites review the enforcement gaps and needs - at all points in the trade chain from the field to the marketplace - that have led to the failure of the current ivory trade regulation system," Dr Maisels said.

"Reducing chronic corruption and improving poor law enforcement, which facilitate poaching and trade, are crucial. It is also vital to improve control of import and sales of wildlife goods by the recipient and transit countries of illegal ivory, especially in Asia," she continued.

"The recipient nations, with the international community, should invest heavily in public education and outreach to inform consumers of the ramifications of the ivory trade," Dr Maisels concluded.

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