Rumbles in the Jungle

Adult male forest elephant, Loango NP, Gabon. Photo by Josh Davis
Forest elephants (Loxodonta (africana) cyclotis) are one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever had the luck to see, but a paper published this month in PLOS ONE showed that quite shockingly from 2002 to 2011, forest elephant populations have declined by huge 62%. The paper concluded that the current population sits at around “less than 10% of its potential size, occupying less than 25% of its potential range”. This comes just one month after a staggering report that in Minkebe National Park, Gabon, an estimated 11,000 elephants have been killed between 2004 and 2012, averaging out at just under 4 killed per day.
The paper then went on to establish the cause of this decline, attributing it quite unsurprisingly to poaching for ivory. Whilst this might seem obvious to most, it is important if plans and strategies are to be developed to help protect and manage the remaining populations, to fully understand the reasons for a species decline. This means ruling out other potentially conflicting causes, such as habitat destruction, bush meat trade, or human wildlife conflict. Unfortunately though, due to the straighter, slightly pinkish hue, forest elephant ivory is seen by many as superior to savannah elephant (Loxodonta (africana) africana) ivory, and thus making them bigger targets.
 
The burning of seized forest elephant ivory, Gabon. Photo by WWF-Canon/James Morgan
 
African forest elephants are found within the central African forest system, and are considered a distinct population from African savannah elephants found to the east and south of the continent. How far this distinction reaches is still debated. It was suggested in 2000 that they should be a separate species in its own right, presenting the smaller body size (about half that of their south eastern cousins), shorter, straighter and downward pointing tusks, frugivorous diet, as well as many other morphological and ecological distinctions. Over the past decade this has been supported by a wealth of genetic evidence, however the IUCN (International Union for theConservation of Nature) state that “more extensive research is required to support the proposed re-classification”.
 
Either way, it is difficult to understate the important role that forests elephant play to the health and maintenance of the central African forests. They’re often called the ‘gardeners of the rainforest’ as they feed on 100s of species of plants as they range widely over many kilometres in one day. When they eat fruit, they eat the whole thing, seeds in all, which eventually find their way through the digestive system of the elephant to finally find itself deposited in a little pile of 100% natural compost, miles from its parent tree. The elephant’s digestion is in fact so ineffective that monkeys and forest hogs are known to go through the forest elephant dung and eat up the leftovers.
 
So they maintain the forest, act as main dispersers, and help the forests regenerate. But it doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot. They also act as the forests engineers. They don’t just help create the forests, they help in clearing them out. They maintain massive clearings deep in the rainforest, called ‘bais’. These are areas which often feature mineral rich soil and a water source, and act as a gathering point for elephants. They seem to frequent these clearings not just for the clays (which may help in digestion, and act as a moisturiser), but its becoming more obvious that they also do it to socialise, meeting with other elephants they may not have seen in months. Whilst the elephants maintain the bais, they benefit a great deal of other species, with gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), bongo antelope (Tragalaphus eurycerus eurycerus), forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus), red river hogs (Potamocherus porcus), sitatunga (Tragalaphus spekii) and African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) also frequenting these clearings to eat the clay and the mineral rich plants which grow in the water courses.
 
Dzanga bai (traslated as: “The Village of Elephants”), Central African Republic, from the air. Photo from africas-eden.co.uk  
 
The rarely seen bongo antelope catching some rays in a bai. Photo by Viajes Tempsdoci
 
A gathering of elephants at Dzanga. Photo from dzangaforestelephants.wildlifedirect.org
 
So this got me thinking. Considering the massive role and importance they play in shaping and maintaining their environment, why has it taken until 2013 for such research on forest elephants, the second largest land animals, to finally be collated and published? I suppose the first answer would simply be a question of logistics. As savannah elephants live in open grasslands, they’re far easier to see, track and follow, and thus have been the subject of far more research. In the dense rainforest, counting and estimating elephant numbers is clearly more difficult. This is probably carries significant weight, but at the same time, Asian elephants also live in rainforests and even a quick search on google scholar reveals many papers documenting Asian elephant declines having been published over the last few decades.  
 
The ecology and behaviour of forest elephants could also be to blame. They tend to live in smaller groups, normally between 2-4 individuals, compared with group sizes of around, say, 30 for savannah elephants. The carcasses of a large herd of elephants are clearly far more blatant than that of a few, as shown by the massive slaughter of 89 elephants recently reported from Chad earlier this month (including a horrifying 30 pregnant females). This might mean that people may consider forest elephant declines as less of a concern, as harrowing images such as those from Chad are not on such a large scale or nearly so common.
 
One of 30 pregnant elephants killed. I know its difficult to look at, but I feel its important for everyone see the horror and product of the ivory trade. Photo by SOS Elephants in Chad
The remains of 89 elephants killed. Photo by SOS Elephants in Chad.
 
But I feel that this lack of research into forest elephant declines is largely one of taxonomy. The fact there has only recently been this investigation into the possible speciation, and the fact that the IUCN still don’t even consider them separate species to their savannah cousins, really adversely effects their conservation. Due to the sterling efforts over the past few decades, L. africana is now listed as ‘vulnerable’. And so by the IUCN classifying both L. (africana) africanaand L. (africana) cyclotis as the same species, they may be masking the widespread decline of the forest elephants. The recent paper in PLOS ONE picks up on this, and makes the suggestion that whilst L. (africana) africanashould remain classed as ‘vulnerable’, the populations of L. (africana) cyclotis fulfil the requirements set out by the IUCN to actually be re-classified as ‘critically endangered’. This could have huge repercussions for the conservation of this incredibly important animal.


I feel that this is a incredibly strong illustration of how whilst on the surface, questions of taxonomy and reclassifications might seem so incredibly trivial, but in actual fact could have massive and far reaching implications for the conservation and persistence of species and their environment.

Whilst this news is obviously very depressing, I hate to leave on a note that is so full of despair. So when I bring stories such as this I’m going to try and find groups or organisations actively working to help reverse these trends of decline. And so I present to you: The Elephant Listening Project. These amazing people work all over central Africa, eves-dropping on forest elephants. As stated earlier, its incredibly difficult to study these beautiful beasts in the wild, but the guys from Cornell university realised that much can be learnt of their behaviour and life style by listening to the ultrasonic rumbles they produce to stay in contact with each other in the incredibly dense forest. If you have a spare 5 minutes of your time, and want to read a little more about these wonderful animals, or just check out some super wicked photos, I urge you to go to their website.

Mother and baby, Loango NP, Gabon. Photo by Josh Davis



Over and out. 

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About zoologyknowledge

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2013. Graduate Biologist with an interest in sharing science news and stories. Special interest in rainforest ecology.

Posted on March 28, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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