'No Place Is Safe From Poaching': 25,000+ Elephants Killed in Key African Reserve
By Mike Gaworecki
New research shows that more than 25,000 forest elephants were killed for their ivory in Gabon's Minkébé National Park, one of the largest and most important wildlife preserves in Central Africa, between 2004 and 2014.
That's a decline of somewhere between 78 and 81 percent in the park's forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) population over the span of just one decade, and it was largely driven by poachers who crossed the border into Gabon from its neighbor to the north, Cameroon, according to a the study led by researchers with Duke University and published in the journal Current Biology in February.
"With nearly half of Central Africa's estimated 100,000 forest elephants thought to live in Gabon, the loss of 25,000 elephants from this key sanctuary is a considerable setback for the preservation of the species," John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and the lead author of the study, said.
This is a small group of forest elephants in Gabon's Minkébé National Park. Poaching for the illegal ivory trade has reduced their numbers by 80 percent, according to a new study.John Poulsen, Duke University
Thanks to booming consumer demand, particularly in Asia, wildlife trafficking operations are so militarized today that poachers are frequently armed with enough weaponry and other equipment to outgun local park rangers. The most dangerous poachers in Africa are often employed by professional wildlife trafficking rings and have access to resources well beyond what was available to poachers during earlier crises, from financial support to military-grade equipment such as armored vehicles, helicopters, and machine guns.
Poulsen and his colleagues arrived at their estimate of forest elephant population losses in Minkébé National Park by comparing the results of two large-scale elephant dung surveys. The researchers identified two distinct "fronts" of poaching pressure after analyzing the surveys' data on abundance and distribution of elephant dung in the park.
"Elephant numbers in the south of the park, which is 58 kilometers from the nearest major Gabonese road, have been somewhat reduced," Poulsen said. "By comparison, the central and northern parts of the park—which, at one point, are just 6.1 kilometers from Cameroon's national road—have been emptied."
The fact that Cameroon's national road is so close to the park makes it relatively easy for poachers to slip into the park, make their illegal kills, and then transport elephant tusks back to Cameroon's largest city, Douala, which has become a major hub of the international ivory trade.
This is a lone forest elephant in Gabon's Minkébé National Park. From 2004 to 2014, an estimated 25,000 elephants in the park were killed for the illegal ivory trade.John Poulsen, Duke University
Poached ivory makes its way into the illegal market very quickly. A September 2016 study found that as much as 90 percent of the elephant tusks seized in Africa comes from elephants killed within the past three years, as opposed to the illegal trade being fueled by older ivory leaking into the market, as was previously believed to be the case.
Poulsen notes that the Gabonese government has made several major moves intended to rein in poaching in Minkébé National Park, such as elevating forest elephants' to "fully protected" status, creating a National Park Police force, doubling the national park agency's budget, and burning all of the ivory it has seized from illegal traders (becoming the first African nation to do so).
While these initiatives are commendable and may have helped reduce poaching activities that originate from within Gabon, according to Poulsen, he says that his team's research demonstrates that the illegal cross-border trafficking of poached ivory has not been curbed and that new approaches to protecting elephants may be called for.
"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," Poulsen added.
"Studies showing 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."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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