Threats – redact
Although they face similar and shared threats with other elephants, forest elephants suffer heavier demand for their ivory and ecosystem resources.
The nature and lifestyle of forest elephants also bar them from certain forms of protection. For example, there is little development of an ecotourism industry that could increase the value of living elephants. These issues raise huge challenges regarding forest elephant conservation.
Forest elephant ivory is highly desirable because it is harder and more pink-tinted than that of either savannah or Asian elephants. Ivory from forest elephants is considered better for carving and fetches a higher price on the black market. The preference is most evident in Japan, where harder ivory has dominated the trade for decades (1). Premium quality bachi, traditional Japanese plucking tools for the stringed instrument called shamisen, are made exclusively from forest elephant tusks.
In the dense and often trackless expanses of rainforest in Central Africa, poaching activity is particularly difficult to detect. Levels of off-take are mostly estimated from ivory seizures at ports. As protection becomes more effective in East and Southern Africa, where anti-poaching teams have been operating for decades and where small places can be used for surveillance, the sparsely populated and unprotected forests of Central Africa may be increasingly attractive to organized poachers.
- The Cornell Chronicle reviews forest elephant poaching rates
- Militant anti-poaching approach
- Andrea Turkalo on the rise of poaching in Central Africa
Ivory is not the only motivation that drives forest elephant poaching. Bushmeat from Central Africa has become an international business in recent decades, with markets fro African rainforest animals reaching even New York and other major cities in the U.S. And disturbingly, hunting forest elephants for bushmeat has been on the rise.
In many ways this illegal market poses the greatest threat not only to forest elephants but to all of the larger animal and bird species residing in the forest; hunters can target elephants and other animals of all ages, even babies, and lucrative markets close to the killing site facilitate local and international trade. But progress can be made to reduce the incentives of supplying the bushmeat market. Large regional markets, and the international trade, require the transport of large amounts of animal protein which, in turn, require vehicle use. Checkpoints on major roads and key railroad stations could help disrupt the commercial networks. Vehicle access into remote areas is often limited, as the only roads are those left behind by natural resource extraction projects. These roads could be better managed to make it more difficult for others, in particular poachers, to use.
Natural Resource Extraction
“The animals react very sensitively to the growing presence of humans and move into quieter places.” Andrea Turkalo
The extraction of natural resources like wood, minerals, and oil also has the potential to devastate forest elephant populations. Currently the most pervasive of these extractive industries is logging. In most Central African countries, logging is quite selective (for now), often limited to one tree per acre. The relatively small openings that result from taking out a single tree may actually be beneficial for forest-dwelling species, because new, tender vegetation sprouts in the gap. The real problem is that these industries increase both access into the forest and the number of people living there by creating and leaving behind large roads for their vehicles and machinery. Great strides have been made with the increased demand for sustainable wood products, which has made gaining internationally recognized certification an economic requirement for large companies. This has helped reduce the damage to forest ecosystems. However, certification does not currently include requirements to close roads and monitor access by private vehicles.
With the geographic range of elephants decreasing more and more, elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with people. Surveys indicate some locals see elephants as dangerous and a problem instead of as a remarkable and important species. Small farmers are forced by poor economic conditions to encroach on elephant habitat, increasing the risk of crop raids. Crop raids can deprive people of their livelihoods and deprive them or their own food. Locals do not always have the knowledge or the materials needed to properly deter and drive away elephants. Elephants are killed in some situations due to this. There are efforts to improve the habitat ranges for elephants, improve elephant detection, and develop deterrents to keep elephants out of fields. Education is also an important component in improving human-elephant conditions.
Despite the grim situation regarding poaching and natural resource extraction, forest elephant conservation can champion the unique opportunity forest elephants provide: they still live “normally,” in the sense that their movements through the rainforest and their social system, along with the ecological challenges they face, are mostly as they always have been. They are the only elephant for which this is true.
Although now greatly reduced from their ancestral range, there is still an enormous expanse of intact rainforest in Central Africa, mostly now in Gabon but also in the northern parts of the Republic of Congo, southwestern Cameroon, and southern Central African Republic. In these areas human population densities are the lowest of anywhere in Africa, and all of these countries have designated some large areas as national parks or protected areas. The challenges are 1.) to increase the effectiveness of governmental bodies to ensure adequate protection and 2.) to hold the line on encroaching resource extraction.
For conservation NGOs like ELP, the challenge is to discover the most important resources required by elephant populations so that decisions can be made about where protection efforts should be focused, and so that effective methods can be developed to monitor the health of elephant populations and intrusions of human activities.