Are forest elephants headed for extinction?
A new study has found that the population of forest elephants in Africa has declined by almost two-thirds in the last decade due to ivory poaching. According to one of the research scientists behind the study, the ivory trade could lead to the loss of the species.
"The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend towards extinction - potentially within the decade - of the forest elephant," said Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Scientists and researchers spent nine years compiling the data that went into the report, which was published in the journal Plos One. All told, researchers spent 90,000 days gathering data in the field.
The research was released at an international wildlife summit in Bangkok, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), where eight countries, including hosts Thailand, were warned that they will face trade sanctions if they fail to crack down on the ivory trade.
According to the study, there are about 100,000 forest elephants left in the forests of central Africa, and about 400,000 savannah elephants, the slightly larger cousin of the forest elephant.
30 years ago, the total elephant population numbered over 1 million. But rising demand for ivory ornaments in Asia has devastated the population, the Guardian reports.
In 1989, CITES instituted a ban on the trade of ivory. But in 1999 and 2008, the organization sanctioned two sales of ivory, under pressure from countries in Asia and southern Africa. This stimulated poaching across the elephant range and ivory smuggling around the world, according to National Geographic.
The decline of the forest elephant due to poaching will have wide-reaching effects.
"A rainforest without elephants is a barren place," says Professor Lee White, head of the National Parks Service in Gabon. "They bring it to life, they create the trails and keep open the forest clearings other animals use; they disperse the seeds of many of the rainsforest trees - elephants are forest gardeners at a vast scale."
One reason why forest elephants have been hit so hard is that they live across many parts of central Africa that have been left lawless because of war. Poachers in those regions tend to have easy access to guns.
Another reason forest elephants are targeted is the quality of their tusks: they tend to be longer, harder and straighter than those of savannah elephants.
But according to the experts, all African elephants in the wild are in danger, whether they live on the savannah or in the forest.
National Geographic has created a documentary series called 'Battle for the Elephants', airing on PBS, which explores the brutal slaughter of African elephants for their tusks.
The series takes viewers into the criminal world of the ivory trade, looking at how poachers operate, telling the stories of the people who are studying elephant behaviour and trying to protect the herds, and tracing the sale of ivory around the world.
One possible sign of positive change is the statement that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made at the opening of the CITES conference. She announced that Thailand will work toward ending the ivory trade in the country.
"As a next step we will forward amending the national legislation with the goal of putting an end on ivory trade and to be in line with international norms," she said. "This will help protect all forms of elephants including Thailand's wild and domestic elephants and those from Africa."
But there's also a new technological threat that may make it harder to crack down on ivory trading: online sales. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a conservation group, Google is helping to fuel the surge in ivory demand in Asia, leading to an increase in poaching.
The group says there are about 10,000 ads on Google Japan's shopping site promoting the sale of ivory. And internet shoppers have found ivory for sale on other sites, including eBay, the Associated Press reports.
Via the Guardian