Gabon’s Forest Elephant Population Plunges 80 Percent in a Decade

A young forest elephant in Gabon. (Photo: Nathan Williamson for Gabon National Parks)

(CN) – Forest elephants living in a Central African “sanctuary” are being picked off rapidly by illegal poachers, and the population has dropped by more than 80 percent in a decade.

Researchers report Monday in the journal Current Biology that about 25,000 elephants in Gabon have been killed by poachers, many of whom come from the bordering nation of Cameroon.

“Because Gabon is thought to hold the largest remaining population of forest elephants, the implication is that forest elephants are in even more trouble than previously believed,” said John Poulsen of Duke University and the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux in Gabon.

“With less than 100,000 elephants across all of Central Africa, the subspecies is in danger of extinction if governments and conservation agencies do not act fast.”

The team used surveys of elephant dung to estimate the population in 2014 and compared their data with evaluations from 2004.

While finding that the population had declined in recent years was not surprising, Poulsen and his team didn’t expect such a significant drop-off in only a decade.

“We can no longer assume that apparently large and remote protected areas will conserve species – poachers will go anywhere that a profit can be made,” he said. “A corollary of this is that cross-border poaching is a major threat to species protection, and bilateral and multilateral efforts are essential for conservation.”

He added, “Species cross borders, and so do poachers.”

The researchers say that reducing the demand for ivory is the key to saving forest elephants.

“China’s recently announced ban of domestic ivory trade will help enormously, if it is effectively implemented,” Poulsen said. “The international community needs to put pressure on all remaining nations that allow the trade so that all illegal trade is stopped.”

The team also supports recognizing forest elephants as a species distinct from African savanna elephants, which is supported by morphological and genetic evidence.

Poulsen is still optimistic that forest elephants will avoid extinction, though they may only exist within well-protected national parks.

“Elephants are ecosystem engineers that play major roles in seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and browsing and damage to vegetation,” he said. “We have very little idea about how the removal of elephants from large extents of Central African forest is going to alter forest composition and structure, and thus the ecosystem services that the forests provide.”