By Steve Connor
Most people know of the African elephant as the great beast that lives on the open savannah but there is a lesser known African elephant that lives a more secretive existence in the dense rainforests of the Congo basin – and it too is under threat from ivory poachers.
A lethal combination of logging and poaching has decimated the population of African forest elephants that have lived in the rainforests of the Congo basin for millions of years, isolated from the more famous African bush elephant which usually lives in the open savannah and woodland.
Forest elephants are smaller than their savannah cousins and some scientists believe they are a distinct species, based on the way they look and behave as well as wide variations in their DNA sequences. But because they are hard to observe in the dense rainforests of central Africa, we know far less about them than we do of savannah elephants.
What is known, however, is that forest elephants have dwindled in numbers and range from the days many decades ago when the occupied a vast swathe of west and central equatorial Africa, from Guinea and Nigeria in the west, to the origins of the River Congo in the heart of central Africa.
Today, forest elephants are found only in pockets of rainforest in Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the past decade alone, scientists estimate that 62 per cent of forest elephants have been slaughtered for their valuable ivory – although their tusks are smaller than the bush elephant, their ivory is harder and therefore more desirable (and valuable) to carvers.
Estimates of how many forest elephants are alive today vary enormously, from as low as 24,000 individuals to as many as 209,000 – although few experts now believe it can be this high. This wide variation is symptomatic of how little is known about this species, which conservationists have nicknamed the “gardeners of the rainforest” because of the vital role they play in distributing the larger seeds of the forest.
The biggest threats to the forest elephant come from the logging roads that run deeper and deeper into the rainforests. These roads bring poachers armed with guns into areas that were once too remote for close human contact with these gentle forest giants.
“Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million square kilometres [over 772,000 square miles\, but now cower in just a quarter of that area,” said John Hart of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation in the DRC, who was part of a large international study into the forest elephant published earlier this year.
“Although the forest cover remains, it is empty of elephants, demonstrating that this is not a habitat degradation issue. This is almost entirely due to poaching,” Dr Hart said. More....