Critically Endangered African Forest Elephant Holds Onto ‘Last Stronghold’ in Gabon

A forest elephant in Gabon.
A forest elephant in Gabon. WCS Gabon

The gentle and expressive African forest elephant is a critically endangered species due to habitat loss and poaching. But according to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Parks of Gabon, these rare, non-predatory pachyderms have one “last stronghold offering a large quasi-continuous habitat” in Gabon, in the Congo River Basin. The verdant forests of the Central African country provide them with the leaves, fruit and tree bark that are the staples of their herbivore diet, as well as protection.

The survey, “Nationwide abundance and distribution of African forest elephants across Gabon using non-invasive SNP genotyping,” was published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

A forest elephant in Gabon. WCS Gabon

“In my opinion, there are two main reasons why Gabon has retained its forests and elephants: Gabon is rich in natural resources and has a low human population overall,” Dr. Alice Laguardia, senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, told EcoWatch in an email.

Laguardia said that Gabon’s economic growth has been based mostly on oil extraction, which has left its forests largely undisturbed.

“However, with the crisis in the petrol industry, the pressure is back on the forests,” Laguardia added. “Fortunately the Gabonese government is determined to protect its forest and imposes sustainable practices on logging companies working in the country.”

Many areas of Gabon are nearly inaccessible due to a lack of developed road infrastructure, thus the forests remain protected, Laguardia noted.

In Gabon, the habitat of the African forest elephant ranges from the country’s Atlantic coast beaches and coastal forests to the old growth forests, swamp forests and forest-savanna of its interior.

“Gabon is quite unique, certainly for forest elephants. But actually across Africa where elephants occur, it’s very unique in that… what we call potential elephant habitat pretty much covers the entire country,” said Wildlife Conservation Society Africa regional director Emma Stokes, reported the Associated Press. “We found elephants were distributed across almost 90% of the total surface area of the country. And you know, Gabon has forest cover of up to 88% of the country. That’s very unusual.”

In order to accurately assess how many African forest elephants are hidden in the dense rainforests of Gabon, it was essential for the researchers to choose the right strategy.

“First we reviewed all methods available that could be applied to answer our question, ‘How many elephants are in Gabon?’” Laguardia told EcoWatch. “We selected a few and compared them to the method that had been used before, line transect distance sampling. We looked at pros and cons at three different sites and published a paper in a peer reviewed journal about it.”

The team spent a month at a time for three years trekking about seven miles a day searching for fresh dung samples, The Associated Press reported. Swabs with the dung were put into test tubes and brought to a government laboratory in the country’s capital of Libreville. There, scientists extracted DNA from a collection of around 2,500 samples from all over the country.

The researchers said prior surveys had used dung counts without DNA sampling, which can be less reliable and more expensive for a large-scale census.

With the DNA, the team was able to identify individual elephants and keep track of the number of times they encountered the dung of those specific elephants, said parks agency research scientist Stéphanie Bourgeois, who is the paper’s co-author.

“[W]e decided to scale up using one particular method DNA-SCR and used a systematic random approach across Gabon to define which sites to survey,” said Laguardia. “Once we had collected the necessary data, we estimated elephant density at each of the sites and finally averaged across the country. That’s how we got our final number.”

According to the study’s researchers, the survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Parks of Gabon was the first nationwide study of a large, freely roaming mammal based on DNA in Africa.

“The final estimate is quite remarkable in itself. Having a clear idea of how the elephant population is doing in Gabon is important, rather than guessing or referring to information that is from another decade,” Laguardia said. “It was also interesting to survey places that had never been studied before and assess how elephants were doing there. It was a surprise to see some of the highest densities were not inside protected areas and that elephants were present in some savannas where we previously thought they were not distributed.”

According to Laguardia, the survey is an important step in ensuring that forest elephants in Gabon receive the protection they need going forward.

“Monitoring populations of endangered species is essential. It allows conservation practitioners to know how many animals are in an area and to compare these numbers between different sites and across time,” she said. “Our surveys were conducted in collaboration with the Gabonese government and national park managers in order to fill that knowledge gap that was hindering the protection of African forest elephants. Now we have a better idea of how the elephants are distributed and can target our actions accordingly.”

It was the first nationwide count of Gabon’s elephants in 30 years, and researchers said in the past decade only 14 percent of the country’s elephant habitat had been surveyed, reported The Associated Press.

“[I]t is not common to have the necessary collaborations in place and resources available to do a nationwide survey, so I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to get this work done,” Laguardia told EcoWatch. “This survey needs to be repeated to assess changes in the estimates and I’m looking forward to that moment. There are details that need to be improved in the analysis and we will possibly be able to cover more sites next time. It would also be exciting to extend this type of effort to other endangered species in the region.”

One thing’s for sure: there are quite a few more African forest elephants in Gabon than was previously thought. The survey found that Gabon is home to 95,110 African forest elephants. Earlier estimates had been much lower.

“When we got the final number after checking and re-checking every step of the analysis, I finally had a good look at it and it was a bit of a surprise! It was an honest relief to know that overall the population in Gabon was doing rather well,” Laguardia said.

According to Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea, and Environment, about 65 to 70 percent of the African forest elephants in the world live in Gabon, The Associated Press reported.

“That’s an indication of the fact that Gabon has resisted the slaughter and the tragedy that has played out in the countries around Gabon,” White said.

Although Central Africa has the most forest elephants on Earth, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the population numbers have gone down by over 86 percent over a period of 31 years, due to the growing dangers of poaching and habitat loss, The Associated Press reported.

“This is an exciting paper because it substantially raises the population estimates of forest elephants in Gabon and establishes a new, rigorous country-level monitoring methodology,” said associate professor of tropical ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment John Poulsen, who wasn’t part of the research team, as reported by The Associated Press. “[T]he government of Gabon now has an enormous responsibility for conserving forest elephants in the face of poaching, and especially human-elephant conflict and crop-raiding.”

One of the most challenging aspects of protecting the African forest elephant population in Gabon is to find ways to help elephants and humans share their lush homeland.

“With regards to African forest elephants in Gabon, the priority is now focused on the challenges posed by human elephant coexistence and solutions to human wildlife conflict,” Laguardia said. “Research will be targeting ways to ameliorate available methods to stop elephants from causing damage to agriculture and coming up with new strategies for increasing people’s tolerance to the devastation elephants can cause. It’s not an easy task!”

Research has shown that conflicts in nearby countries like Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo have contributed to the devastation of the species in those areas, reported The Associated Press. In an effort to protect their elephants, Gabon has focused on deterring cross-border poaching and put forth campaigns to increase public awareness.

“You see it around Africa. Countries that have lost their elephants, have lost control of their natural resources, have often actually lost control of their countries,” said White, The Associated Press reported. “The countries that have almost no elephants have been through civil wars and are much less stable than the countries that have preserved their elephants.”

According to Laguardia, Gabon still has a chance to preserve something that is becoming increasingly rare on our planet: “true wilderness.”

“This moment in time is key,” Laguardia told EcoWatch. “If Gabon can find alternative sources of income that do not require the destruction of its natural resources, but rather can shift into a green economy where forests are valued by the incredible services they provide to us humans, then there is hope! Gabon can actually set an example for the world on coexistence with wildlife and a reminder for what true wilderness really is.”

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