Site icon Conservation news

Calls for increased anti-poaching efforts to protect African forest elephants

  • It has long been a subject of debate amongst scientists, but most have come around to the idea that African elephants are actually two distinct species: the larger Loxodonta africana, or savanna elephants, and the smaller Loxodonta cyclotis, or forest elephants.
  • The Nature editorial points to recent research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology showing that most African forest elephant females do not become pregnant for the first time until they are 23 years of age and only produce one calf every five to six years in making the case that the forest-dwelling pachyderms are in need of heightened protections from poachers.
  • Though the IUCN acknowledges the genetic evidence suggesting there are at least two species of African elephants, the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group believes that more research is required to make the proposed re-classification official.

An editorial published in Nature yesterday argues that more attention needs to be paid to anti-poaching efforts for African forest elephants due to their slow population growth and greater risk of extinction.

It has long been a subject of debate amongst scientists, but most have come around to the idea that African elephants are actually two distinct species: the larger Loxodonta africana, or savanna elephants, and the smaller Loxodonta cyclotis, or forest elephants. DNA evidence produced in 2011 showed that the shy, almost secretive forest elephants are indeed a separate species from their much better-known, savanna-roaming relatives.

“Poaching is devastating both populations, but poaching of forest elephants should be of particular concern,” according to the Nature op-ed. It’s been estimated that 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year, and that fewer than 400,000 elephants remain in Africa today.

The Nature editorial points to recent research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology showing that most African forest elephant females do not become pregnant for the first time until they are 23 years of age and only produce one calf every five to six years in making the case that the forest-dwelling pachyderms are in need of heightened protections from poachers.

“By contrast, the savannah elephant begins breeding at 12 years of age, and typically produces young at 3- to 4-year intervals,” the authors of the op-ed write. “Thus, forest-elephant populations increase in size slowly, and are at greater risk of extinction.”

However, as the editorial notes, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently only recognizes one African elephant species, Loxodonta africana, on its Red List of Threatened Species.

Though the IUCN acknowledges the genetic evidence suggesting there are at least two species of African elephants, the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group believes that more research is required to make the proposed re-classification official.

“Premature allocation into more than one species may leave hybrids in an uncertain conservation status,” the IUCN states. “For this reason, this assessment was conducted for the single species as currently described, encompassing all populations.”

The IUCN Red List currently classifies African elephants as “Vulnerable,” but the Nature op-ed argues that classifying both elephant species as one means that the threat posed by poaching to African forest elephants is being underestimated by that listing.

Two recent reports from monitoring programs administered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) show the upward trend of elephant poaching for the illegal ivory trade that started in 2006 may be starting to slow down. But according to a statement CITES released with the reports, levels of poaching still remain “unacceptably high.”

The IUCN is holding its annual World Conservation Congress in Hawaii from September 1 to 10, and it’s likely that the Journal of Applied Ecology study will be a topic of discussion in the conventional hall. The authors of that study write that “Debates regarding the sustainability of the ivory trade for the species appear to have overestimated growth rates of forest elephants. The information presented here indicates that sustainable offtake models for forest elephants need reassessment.”

It’s that reassessment that the authors of the Nature editorial are hoping is one of the outcomes of the IUCN conservation congress.

“At its conservation congress this week, the IUCN needs to catch up with the science and recognize the real threat of this species’ extinction,” they conclude.

African elephant in South Africa. Photo by Rhett Butler.

CITATIONS