By Stephen Sautner
The Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) largest remaining forest elephant population, located in the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), has declined by 37 percent in the last five years, with only 1,700 elephants now remaining, according to wildlife surveys by WCS and DRC officials. WCS scientists warn that if poaching of forest elephants in DRC continues unabated, the species could be nearly extinguished from Africa's second largest country within ten years. According to the latest survey, 5,100, or 75 percent, of the reserve's elephants have been killed in the last 15 years. These numbers are particularly shocking as the OFR is considered the best protected conservation area in DRC. According to WCS, the primary reason for the recent decline in forest elephant numbers is ivory poaching.
The survey comes in the wake of another grim report earlier this month from Gabon where 11,000 elephants were slaughtered in Minkebe National Park over a ten-year period. WCS continue to sound the alarm that rampant poaching is decimating elephant populations throughout Africa, and more needs to be done before populations vanish from many areas.
"The global poaching crisis for elephants is at epidemic proportions," said WCS Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science John Robinson. "The world must come together to recognize this problem and to stop the killing, trafficking, and demand, or we will lose elephants in the wild in our lifetime."
In the early 1990s, before the civil war of 1996-2003, DRC was relatively calm. In a 1995-1997 survey of the OFR – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – WCS found that there were approximately 6,800 forest elephants living in an area of almost 14,000 km2 (8,682 square miles).
After the civil war, WCS carried out a second survey in 2005-2007, and found that elephants had suffered heavy losses to poaching with numbers having dropped by 60 percent to approximately 2700 elephants. Despite this dramatic decline, OFR had fared much better than did other protected areas during the civil war. For example, in Salonga National Park, a huge area that once held the largest elephant population in DRC, WCS found that elephants had been decimated to less than 1,000 individuals. Thus, by 2007, OFR had DRC's largest remaining forest elephant population.
During the war, park guards could not protect much of OFR but were able to document elephant kills and ivory poaching. Since the end of the civil war, five years ago, park rangers have reduced the decline from approximately 400 to 170 elephants annually.
Despite this success, the park rangers cannot keep up with the dramatic increase in demand for ivory that is being fueled by economic growth in Asia, particularly China, and facilitated by increased access to previously remote forests. Ivory poaching is increasingly undertaken by highly organized, heavily armed criminal cartels. More....