Duke study: Poaching drives 80 percent decline in elephants at Central African preserve

Forest elephants in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park.
Forest elephants in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park. Duke Nicholas School of the Environment

The population of forest elephants at a key Central African preserve is sharply declining, and poaching is largely to blame, according to a study by Duke University researchers.

The number of forest elephants at Gabon Minkébé National Park, one of the largest and most important preserves in Central Africa, have declined about 80 percent, according to the study led by John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Forest elephants are the smallest of the three elephant species and the third-largest terrestrial animal on Earth. Slow birth rates contributed to the fading of the species and make it more difficult for the population to recover from poaching.

Duke’s research suggests that more than 25,000 elephants in the park may have been killed for their ivory between 2004 and 2014, Poulsen said in a news release from the university.

“With nearly half of Central Africa’s estimated 100,000 forest elephants thought to living in Gabon, the loss of 25,000 elephants from this key sanctuary is a considerable setback for the preservation of the species,” he said.

While some of the poaching originated within the park, findings from the Duke study indicate that cross-border poaching by hunters from neighboring nations – mostly Cameroon to the north – largely drove the precipitous decline.

The Duke study’s findings were published Feb. 20 in the journal Current Biology.

Poulsen and his team estimated the extent of the forest elephant population losses by comparing data from two large-scale surveys of elephant dung in the park in 2004 and 2014. They used two analytic methods to account for periods of heavy rain that might have sped the dung’s decay and skew the survey’s accuracy.

“Based on changes in the abundance and geographic distribution of the dung, we identified two fronts of poaching pressure,” Poulsen said.

Forest elephant numbers in the southern part of the park, about 36 miles from the nearest major Gabonese Road, were somewhat reduced, Poulsen said. By comparison, the central and northern parts of the park – less than 4 miles from Cameroon’s national road – were empty of elephants.

The proximity of the road makes it relatively easy for Cameroonese poachers to access the park and transport their illegal haul back to one of Cameroon’s largest cities, Douala – a major hub of the international ivory trade.

Since 2011, the Gabonese government has taken steps to curb poaching in the park, Poulsen said, including elevating forest elephants’ conservation status to “fully protected,” creating a police force for the park and doubling the park’s budget.

Gabon also became the first African nation to burn all confiscated ivory, Poulsen said.

While the efforts may reduce poaching from within Gabon, Poulsen said his research suggests it has done little to slow the illegal cross-border trafficking.

“The clock is ticking,” Poulsen said. “To save Central Africa’s forest elephants, we need to create new multinational protected areas and coordinate international law enforcement to ensure the prosecution of foreign nationals who commit or encourage wildlife crimes in other countries.”

Studies show sharp declines in forest elephant populations are nothing new, but a 78 to 81 percent loss in a single decade from one of the largest, most remote protected areas in Central Africa is “a startling warning that no place is safe from poaching,” Poulsen said.

Researchers from the National Parks Agency of Gabon, the University of South Florida, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, the World Wildlife Fund Central Africa Regional Program Office, Gabon’s Institute for Tropical Ecology Research and the University of Stirling conducted the study with Poulsen. Duke-affiliated co-authors were Connie Clark, Amelia Meier, Cooper Rosin, Sarah Moore, Sally Koerner and Vincent Medjibe.

The 2004 and 2014 surveys used in the Duke study were funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants program.

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett