Saving the African elephant

Successful outcome of UN conference critical to the future of the species

 

The damage inflicted by poachers on Africa’s rare forest elephant – numbers are down to some 70,000 – will take a century to repair, a report by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has warned. That is if the poaching can be curbed. Globally, the trade in illegal wildlife is estimated at $20 billion a year.

A slow birth rate and the predations of poachers to satisfy an almost insatiable demand for ivory in China and Asia for ornaments or traditional medicine make that task near impossible.

Another survey, the Great Elephant Census, records a decline of 30 per cent in the overall African elephant population in the past seven years. Starting in early 2014, teams of researchers spread out across Africa in dozens of planes to cover nearly 290,000 miles. They counted about 352,000 of the larger savannah elephants in the 18 countries surveyed. More than half live in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

But “forest elephants are experiencing the greatest levels of poaching in Africa with potentially as much as 10 to 18 per cent of the population killed per year,” the WCS study says. The worst poaching takes place in the poor, largely ungovernable, and war-ravaged Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

African elephants play a crucial role in the robustness of central Africa’s wooded ecosystems, the study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, says. They travel widely and eat a lot, distribute seeds in their excrement, and create important pathways through jungles for smaller animals. A UN conservation meeting in Johannesburg later this month will see Zimbabwe and Namibia push for permission to sell ivory stocks, a move opposed by many other African countries.

They are divided between those seeking to open up the ivory trade allegedly to raise badly-needed funds for conservation, and those who say it would provide cover to poachers and make products that threaten species such as forest elephants socially acceptable. Whatever the solution, it must return this great species to a path of sustained population growth.

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