Forest elephants learn to avoid roads, behavior may lead to population decline
Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com
October 27, 2008
Scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants believe the pachyderms are avoiding roads because the highly-intelligent animals have connected roads with poachers. This is not surprising, considering a study which found that elephants that had negative encounters with humans learned rapidly to fear and avoid them, and passed this knowledge down to their young. Although the behavior probably helps the elephant avoid poaching, scientists believe the negative consequences of the behavior far outweigh the positive.
Whole communities of elephants are stuck in what has been described as a “virtual prison”. The smaller the prison is, the less access to food and vital mineral deposits. Researchers worry that a lack of resources will lead to high-levels of aggression and stress in elephant communities, which is likely to cause declines in reproduction. In addition, the roadway barriers will have an impact on the ecosystem of the tropical forest, since elephants are key seed dispersal agents for regenerating forests.
New road in Central Africa (credit: Stephen Blake).
Tracking 28 forest elephants using GPS collars, the study found that elephants were most wary of roads outside of protected areas—those likeliest to harbor poachers. Of the 28 elephants, only one crossed a road outside a protected area. The authors note that it didn’t walk, but ran breakneck across the road at a speed 14 times its regular pace. Although wariness was greatest around roads outside protected areas, the researchers saw adverse reactions to roads everywhere.
Logging road density in Congo count
"A small yet very feasible shift in development planning, one that is actually good for poor local forest people and for wildlife and wilderness, would be a tremendous help to protect forest elephants and their home,” Blake said. “Planning roads to give forest elephants breathing space so that at least those in the deep forest can relax, as well as reduce the death and fear that comes with roads by reducing poaching, would be trivial in terms of cost but massively important for conservation."
Forest elephant in Gabon (credit: Rhett Butler)
Recent DNA research has sparked off a debate as to whether or not Africa’s forest elephants are a subspecies of the better known African savannah elephants or a different species entirely. The African forest elephant is certainly smaller than their savannah cousins. In addition, they sport a longer and narrower lower jaw, possess straighter tusks with a pinkish hue, and usually have an extra toenail on each foot. Whether the forest elephant is a subspecies or its own species could have large conservation implications.
African elephants being poached at record rate August 1, 2008
African elephants are being killed for their ivory at a record pace, reports a University of Washington conservation biologist. Samuel Wasser says the elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is currently about 8 percent a year — higher than the 7.4 percent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago.
Congo forest elephants declining from logging roads, illegal ivory April 1, 2007
Fast-expanding logging roads in the Congo basin are becoming "highways of death" for the fierce but elusive forest elephant, according to a new study published in the journal Public Library of Science. Logging roads both provide access to remote forest areas for ivory poachers and serve as conduits of advancing human settlement.
Logging roads rapidly expanding in Congo rainforest June 7, 2007
Logging roads are rapidly expanding in the Congo rainforest, report researchers who have constructed the first satellite-based maps of road construction in Central Africa. The authors say the work will help conservation agencies, governments, and scientists better understand how the expansion of logging is impacting the forest, its inhabitants, and global climate.