The tropical rainforests of the Minkébé National Park in northern Gabon are dense, wet woods—the sort of terrain where a hiker could get lost straying just a few feet off the trail. This seemingly impenetrable thicket has protected a thriving population of forest elephants from the poachers who have preyed on African elephants for a century. But in the past decade or so, the ivory trade seems to have finally penetrated this sanctuary.
According to a study published in February in Current Biology, poachers killed more than 25,000 elephants in Minkébé between 2004 and 2014—approximately 80 percent of the park’s total forest elephant population. Most of the carnage occurred without the knowledge of authorities, meaning that the same wall of foliage that has shielded these elephants from humans has also, until recently, obscured their demise.
Like all herbivores, forest elephants are extremely important to the cycling of nutrients in the ecosystems they inhabit. The “megagardeners” clear paths through the forest, disrupting the understory and dispersing tons of fruit seeds in their dung. Many scientists argue that forest elephants, which are smaller than savanna elephants and have straighter tusks, should be recognized as a distinct species rather than a subspecies. Not only is this distinction supported by genetic studies published in 2001 and 2010, but a separation between savanna and forest elephants would likely earn the latter a critically endangered status, according to criteria established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
How can anyone know what’s going on with elephants, good or bad, behind the jungle’s thick veil? Well, that’s actually quite simple. The study authors measured the herds not by how many animals they could physically count but by taking a tally of their scat piles. Really.
“It is difficult to see forest elephants in dense, tropical forest. Therefore we rely on counts of dung piles seen as we walk through the forest,” says lead author John Poulsen, an ecologist at Duke University.
Some fancy mathematical models are also involved, of course, including one that takes into account how quickly an elephant patty disappears when it rains. Seriously. In the end, though, the models returned statistically similar (and depressing) results, making Poulsen confident that the numbers reflect disappearing elephants and not something else, such as changes in the rate of elephant poo decay.
Phyllis Lee, an evolutionary behaviorist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, agrees. “The counts, in my opinion and experience, are highly reliable and replicated,” says Lee, who was unaffiliated with the research. “This method has been used many times and is well validated.”
Lee, the director of science for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, adds that these findings are not all that surprising. Previous surveys of elephant populations have indicated a decline of 60 percent or more across central African forest ecosystems, she says, so the numbers put forth by Poulsen and his team aren’t far off.
This is particularly disheartening news given that Minkébé represents the largest protected forest in Gabon—an area roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The national park, however, is located near the country’s northern border with Cameroon, where many of the poachers live. In fact, one of Cameroon’s national highways comes within four miles of Minkébé at one point, facilitating poachers’ access to the park and its wildlife.
But the best evidence that poachers are crossing the border comes from the dung. Poulsen and his colleagues report that as they sampled closer to the border with Cameroon, the sightings of elephant scat plummeted. With a population of 22.25 million, Cameroon has roughly 15 times as many people as its neighbor—and a populace that is far poorer: Cameroon’s per capita gross domestic product is about one-eighth that of Gabon, according to 2013 statistics.
“Most of the forest elephants in Cameroon have already been poached,” says Poulsen, “so poachers will go where the elephants are.”
In recent years, Gabon has redoubled its efforts to protect its elephants. According to the paper, since 2011 the country has given the forest elephant “fully protected” status, doubled the budget for its national parks department, and created a whole new agency called the National Park Police. The government even torched its ivory stockpile back in 2012, making Gabon the first central African country to do so. Gabon is also one of the founding members of the Elephant Protection Initiative, a coalition of African countries trying to work out international solutions to the growing elephant poaching epidemic. (Cameroon, ahem, has yet to sign on.)
Cross-border poaching issues are not unique to Gabon and Cameroon. Lee says many, if not most, elephant populations live close to a border. “It is high time we started to treat elephants more like the other migratory species in terms of conservation conventions and agreements,” she says. “They are international and need to be protected at that level.”
One way to do this would be to standardize penalties for poaching and ivory trafficking, says Poulsen. He would also like to see more severe punishments for cartels and others who fund and organize poaching, along with more reasonable sentences and programs for those poachers who are trying to escape poverty.
But the bottom line remains: “Poachers will find a way to kill elephants as long as ivory is profitable and poachers have no better sources of livelihood,” says Poulsen. Not even a forebodingly thick jungle can protect the animals from that.
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