Human conflict have a particular devastating impact on African elephant populations, far greater than habitat.
This, according to a new University of British Columbia study published online in PLoS ONE in November 2011. In some of the best-documented cases to date, the study shows the elephant population in the Okapi Faunal Reserve - one of the last strongholds of forest elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — saw a 50 per cent decline in the last decade due to civil war and ivory poaching, from 6,439 to 3,288. In other parks in eastern DRC, the decimation was even greater.
"Having protected areas is not enough to save elephants in times of conflict," says lead author Rene Beyers, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC's Department of Zoology. "The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo had a large impact on elephant populations, including those in parks and reserves."
According to Beyers, two factors have been significant in the survival of the elephant populations to date — a continued presence by a highly committed government field staff and continued support by international organisations.
Currently, there are an estimated 6,000 elephants left in the wild in eastern Congo, down from approximately 22,000 before the civil war. These remaining animals are the only viable populations left in an otherwise enormous landscape. The war-torn DRC has the largest tract of rainforest in the Congo Basin - at 1.6 million square-kilometres, it is the second biggest continuous rainforest in the world. Scientists believe most of this forest was probably elephant habitat in the past, but poaching and human encroachment have taken a toll on the animals.
The DRC is particularly hard-hit by poaching due to a combination of increasing demand for ivory and the lawlessness of the civil war. In the savannah of West and Central Africa, elephants declined by at least 50 per cent in the last 15 to 30 years. Large shipments of ivory originating from this region and elsewhere in Africa have been seized in Asia.
The research team includes Rene Beyers, Brian Klinkenberg and Tony Sinclair from UBC, John Hart and Simeon Dino from the Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba Project in the DRC, and Falk Grossmann from the Wildlife Conservation Society.