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Ivory trade’s shocking toll: 65% of world’s forest elephants killed in 12 years (warning: graphic image)

Forest elephants have suffered unprecedented butchery for their ivory tusks over the past decade, according to new numbers released by conservationists today in London. Sixty-five percent of the world’s forest elephants have been slaughtered by poachers over the last dozen years, with poachers killing an astounding nine percent of the population annually. Lesser-known than their savannah cousins, a genetics study in 2010 found that forest elephants are in fact a distinct species, as far removed from savannah elephants as Asian elephants are from mammoths. These findings make the forest elephant crisis even more urgent.

“At least a couple of hundred thousand forest elephants were lost between 2002-2013 to the tune of at least sixty a day, or one every twenty minutes, day and night,” says Fiona Maisels, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who headed the research. “By the time you eat breakfast, another elephant has been slaughtered to produce trinkets for the ivory market.”

The analysis adds new data from 2012 and 2013 to a landmark study last year, showing that despite some stepped-up conservation efforts poaching continues apace.

A dead forest elephant with its tusks removed by ivory poachers. Photo by: Andrea Turkalo/WCS.

A dead forest elephant with its tusks removed by ivory poachers. Photo by: Andrea Turkalo/WCS.

Forest elephants are found primarily in Central and West Africa, largely inhabiting—as its name suggests—the Congo Rainforest. However, this means that it’s not only more difficult to monitor populations hidden by great forests, but also that it’s easy for poachers to kill them and getaway with immunity. Many of the countries in which they are found are also beset by poverty, instability, and corruption, making forest elephant conservation incredibly challenging.

For example, forest elephants used to have their biggest stronghold in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but relentless poaching means that the country has lost many of its forest elephants.

“The current number and distribution of elephants is mind-boggling when compared to what it should be,” said Samantha Strindberg, also with WCS and co-author of the paper. “About 95 percent of the forests of DRC are almost empty of elephants.”

Today, Gabon holds the most surviving forest elephants with about 60 percent of the global population.

Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Despite the 2010 study showing that forest elephants are a distinct species, this has yet to be recognized by the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). The group currently lumps forest and savannah elephants together and lists them as Vulnerable. However that listing hasn’t been updated for nearly six years.

Governments are beginning to respond. Just yesterday, the Obama Administration released an ambitious new strategy for tackling global wildlife crime, including toughening restrictions on ivory and shutting loopholes. Many countries, including most recently France, have begun to destroy their ivory stockpiles. Although much of this comes years too late for many of the crippled populations of forest elephants.

“These new numbers showing the continuing decline of the African forest elephant are the exact reason why there is a sense of urgency at the United for Wildlife trafficking symposium in London this week,” John Robinson, WCS Chief Conservation Officer and Executive Vice President of Conservation and Science with the WCS, says. “The solutions we are discussing in London this week and the commitments we are making cannot fail or the African forest elephant will blink out in our lifetime.”

Map shows forest elephant surveys of dung in Central Africa as of last year. Colors show dung encountered per kilometer. Notice the populations in Gabon versus the DRC. Map courtesy of Maisels et al.
Map shows forest elephant surveys of dung in Central Africa as of last year. Colors show dung encountered per kilometer. Notice the populations in Gabon versus the DRC. Map courtesy of Maisels et al.


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