Is anywhere safe for Africa’s forest elephants? Apparently not, according to a recent study published in Current Biology by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project, Colorado State University and Save the Elephants.

Over the last decade, scientists have calculated the number of forest elephants in Gabon’s Minkebe Park, one of the species’ last strongholds. For years, conservationists were convinced that the elephants would be protected and thrive in the wilderness of the park. They believed the forest elephants would be almost immune to poachers. Unfortunately, the new data suggests that the park is anything but safe for its elephants – and as researchers dig deeper, the conservation of Africa’s forest elephants seems bleaker.


25,000 Lost Lives in Just Over a Decade

According to their analysis, more than 25,000 forest elephants were killed between 2004 and 2014. That’s a drop of 80 percent in the last decade! As great as the Minkebe Park is, with its large landscapes and remote location, elephants are still in grave danger of being slaughtered by poachers for their tusks.

“With less than 100,000 elephants across all of Central Africa, the subspecies is in danger of extinction if governments and conservation agencies do not act fast,” said John Poulsen of Duke University and the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux in Gabon. “We can no longer assume that apparently large and remote protected areas will conserve species–poachers will go anywhere that a profit can be made.”

Established in 2002, Minkebe National Park served as a 7570 square kilometer safe haven for elephants to protect them from poachers. “It had the highest density of elephants in Central Africa and was very hard to get to,” said John Poulsen, a co-author of the new study.

Gabon is home to nearly half the population of forest elephants in Central Africa and regardless of the steps conservationists have taken to protect them, poachers are still able to find the elephants – and kill them.


Why We Need Forest Elephants in the World

As mesmerizing as they are, forest elephants are more than just beautiful. They play a fundamental role in protecting the forests balance, known as the ecosystem’s engineers. As explained in an article on Care2, researchers are unable to specify exactly the impact their loss would have on the area, but what they are sure of is that when the forest elephants go, so will the trees.

Forest elephants play two prime roles for trees. They roam over vast areas of land, dispersing seeds for miles via their dung. Thanks to an elephant’s stomach acids, the ingested seeds are softened and able to germinate at a much faster pace.

A study of the impact of elephants on tree populations published Proceedings of the Royal Society B cited this phenomenon in Thai forests. According to researcher Trevor Caughlin, trees produce millions of seeds and only one of them needs to successfully make it into the ground for a new sapling to grow. Elephants help increase the likelihood that the seeds will germinate and further, they were able to find that the method of dispersal played a great role in the future health of the tree. Looking at tree data from an area in Thailand where elephant populations used to number in the 100,000s, and have now been reduced down to around 2,000, they were able to see a difference in seeds spread before and after elephants – and the trees fared much better in the presence of animals.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the trees that suffer from elephant loss, many other animals rely on those very trees for their own survival. Effectively, losing elephants would cause a trophic cascade, meaning a reduction in overall biodiversity.


What Conservationists Are Doing to Help

From cross-border law enforcement measures to calling on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to categorize forest elephants as a critically endangered species, conservationists are doing everything they can to protect forest elephants. Right now, African elephants are only listed as a threatened species in the United States. If they were listed as a critically endangered species, they would receive more protection. After all, they need as much protection as they can get.

“As long as some countries persist in their ‘right’ to trade in ivory, there will be cross-border poaching,” said Phyllis C. Lee, an animal behaviorist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom. “That’s clear for all to see now.”


How You Can Help

It’s easy to feel somewhat hopeless when you hear news like this. But it’s up to us to stand up for these animals who cannot defend themselves. You can help by, firstly, never purchasing items that are made with elephant ivory. The illegal trade is fuelling the destruction of hundreds of African elephants, daily. Further, you can help by sponsoring an African forest elephant through World Wildlife Fund.

Lastly, be sure to share this post! We can’t help save an animal that no one knows is in danger, so spread the word and encourage others to as well.

Image source: costas anton dumitrescu/Shutterstock