In recent years, the African elephant that roam freely across several countries like Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, is threatened with extinction. A lot of work is being done by local and international wildlife conservationists, though they seem to be losing the battle to protect the giant mammal. In this special feature, our Writer, Martin Chemhere, finds out from an expert why the forest elephant numbers are declining rapidly.
Dr. Fiona Maisels, Conservation Scientist, WCS Africa program, and University of Stirling, said that it is now known that across Africa there are two species of elephant – forest and savanna, and prior to 2021, both were considered as a single species, with two subspecies. As a species, he explained, they were listed as vulnerable by IUCN.
Noting that in the most recent update of the IUCN Red List, African elephants were treated separately; the African Savanna Elephant was uplisted to endangered, and the African Forest Elephant as critically endangered. A review in 2016 examined the consequences of poaching on forest elephants and the environment.
Countries or regions most affected were in much of West Africa, where both forest and savanna elephants have been in decline for at least half a century because of habitat loss, and well before that – and continuing to some extent- because of poaching for ivory.
“Some East African countries (savannah elephants) have also suffered, especially because of ivory poaching. Much of Central Africa has been affected by ivory poaching, but the degree of loss varies from country to country, depending on factors such as civil war, or, conversely, by maintenance of the rule of law (which tends to favour more stable elephant populations or at least a slower rate of decline),” she said.
According to the most recent report – the IUCN African Elephant Status Report 2016 – the region with most elephants is Southern Africa, holding well over half of all African elephants. The single largest population of elephants is found in Botswana. The species in Southern Africa is African Savanna Elephants. The largest population of forest elephants is in Gabon – this country holds about half of that entire species.
“In general, countries that have a combination of large undisturbed areas of habitat and effective antipoaching do better in terms of maintaining their elephant populations,” notes Dr Maisels.
But is the African continent on the verge of losing the battle to protect the forest elephant?
Sautner says that this depends on the country, and on the location within each country. His view is that where there is civil war, or extreme unrest, Government attention is less focused on wildlife conservation than in places where there is stability. Also, within the nations that make up forest elephant range, there are some strongholds where elephant populations are stable. These strongholds are usually fairly large, are in peaceful areas, benefit from protection from poaching, and tend not to have a “hard edge” with agriculture, she said.
Asked to what extent does the African forest (and savanna) elephants’ decline could affect the future of African travel and tourism, she explained: “To date, there are only a tiny handful of sites where forest elephant are the main attraction for visitors. The vast majority of tourists to Africa go to the savanna areas, partly because it is easier to see wildlife in a grassland than in a forest, partly because it is in general more comfortable (relatively dry, often cooler than the forests, and usually with relatively low insect density!) and partly because there is a long tradition of wildlife viewing tourism in the savanna nations, with the development of a wide variety of lodges, information, and trained wildlife tour guides. This is now developing in the forest region, often with the assistance of experienced savanna tourism outfits. But forest wildlife tourists come also to see gorillas, and other forest-specific species as well as elephants.”
The major challenges facing conservationists in the protection of the elephants is foremost, poaching for ivory. The other will be habitat modification; either by land-use planning that creates “islands” of habitat without connectivity, or by siting major infrastructure in areas of prime importance for these animals. An emerging concern in Central Africa is crop-raiding, where elephants are learning to exploit agricultural areas. And finally, climate change may be reducing the available food for these animals that feed mostly on fruits.
Dr Maisels explains that when elephants are killed for ivory, government and civil society conservationists need to work with the international community along the criminal trafficking chains that spirit ivory away from the African continent to destinations half a world away, via smuggled caches in containers, through illegal ivory carving workshops, to their final point of sale.
The bright side of things is that within the “strongholds” mentioned above, many elephant populations have stabilized, according to Dr Maisels. He revealed that, however, forest elephant range includes at least two million square kilometers of potential range, spread across 20 countries, ranging from stable and peaceful to the complete reverse, with a wide economic range in income from less than $1000 per person per year to over $13,000; countries at the peaceful, higher economic end of these spectra can and do much more than those at the other end.
What solutions do you think should be implemented to stop their extinction?
The expert said that forest elephant protection can be broken down into several areas. Of immediate urgency within Africa, there is need effective direct protection of living elephants in their habitat (antipoaching). Secondly, governments and civil society need to establish national and regional land-use plans that allow development to be carried out hand-in-hand with maintaining connectivity between the areas important for elephants, and maintaining the most important areas for elephants free of major disturbance. Thirdly, local communities who live alongside elephants are key – it is they who are first affected by agricultural damage by elephants, but if this can be dealt with, these communities can be the first bastion of defence for these animals.
Still, activities that include not only African nations, but also intermediate shipping or air freight points along the ivory trafficking chains, and final ivory destinations, include customs and policing efforts to stem the international trafficking of ivory, and the reduction or elimination of ivory demand.
“The more potential buyers who realise that ivory comes from living, breathing elephants, and that elephants have to die to make the ivory available, the fewer will be the people who want it. This is already happening on a large scale, especially among young people who have increasing access to social media, and who are rejecting the tastes of the older generation, but more needs to be done.” – Dr Maisels.
Where would the decline of African forest elephants be felt most between Africa and the Western world and why?
In Dr Maisels’ words, elephants are one of the most charismatic animals that modern humans have ever known. They are the largest terrestrial mammal on the planet, they are responsible for seed dispersal of a wide range of trees; they carry important soil nutrients from their sources (sodium from coastlines, phosphorus from mountain ranges) across entire continents, which ensures soil fertility.
“The fact that there are now very few – or no – modern elephants in the areas where there were hugely important river valley civilisations (Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, Yellow River Valley, and Mesopotamia), which flourished between 3500 and 5000 years ago, and the fact that these civilisations collapsed, is thought to be at least partially due to the loss of soil fertility engendered by elephants no longer moving nutrients around.
“No more elephants: reduced crop yields, civilisations no longer function as before….this happened in the past, but who knows what effects the loss of modern elephants will have on African forests. Certainly some modern evidence shows that forest type changes when elephants are gone, with elephant-dispersed trees vanishing, and it is possible that soil fertility across the forest region will decline if elephants vanish”.
“The western world has seen all kinds of species vanish in the last millennium. Almost 900 species have vanished since Shakespeare’s time. We need to ensure that elephants do not join this list. These huge, intelligent, charismatic animals have always held humans in thrall. They can be of great danger to unarmed humans, but they impress us with their sheer size, resourcefulness, and obvious family-centred behaviours.
The loss of elephants will not affect our daily lives as profoundly as, say, the loss of phytoplankton in the oceans (which may result in the collapse of marine ecosystems) but the effect on our view of the forests of Africa will be forever damaged,” she concluded.