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62% Decline in Central African Forest Elephants

By Ross Pomeroy

African forest elephants have undergone a devastating decline. Their population in Central Africa has plummeted 62%, and their range has concurrently contracted by 30% since 2002. The bad news was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE on Monday.

To discern these unfortunate findings, a massive, international team of researchers spent 91,600 person-hours surveying 13,000 kilometers of land in Cameroon, Gabon, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, and the Central African Republic. Using dung as an indirect indicator of the elephants, the researchers estimated that around 100,000 individuals currently survive, down from a population of 700,000 several decades ago.

Habitat loss and pressure from agricultural activities played a minor role in the decline, but the major threat to the elephants remains poaching. (Above image: A & C show estimates of the elephants' range and population from 2002, with B & D showing corresponding estimates for 2011. Increasingly darker shades of green correspond to higher population densities, while grey represents extremely low density.)

Sadly, the researchers portend that this trend will only worsen, as ivory, which is harvested from the elephants' tusks, is in increasing demand, particularly from China. Ivory prices are skyrocketing, and this is tempting many poor and destitute Africans to illegal poaching in order to feed their families. They join organized poaching rings in hunting the elephants.

There is a small silver lining to the new population data. When coupled with prior research, it indicates that African forest elephants have declined by 80% in 25 years. This qualifies the pachyderms for an uplisting on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, from "vulnerable" to "critically endangered." With any luck, such a move may elicit meaningful action on behalf of the elephants.

Source: Maisels F, Strindberg S, Blake S, Wittemyer G, Hart J, et al. (2013) Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59469. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059469

Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of Real Clear Science. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.

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