FOREST ELEPHANT POACHING CRISIS
We are in the midst of an elephant poaching epidemic across the African continent. Fueled by a hunger for ivory status symbols, these iconic and intelligent mammals are being slaughtered for their tusks at an alarming rate. Experts say that if this trend continues, we may be living in a world without wild elephants in the next few decades.
While there has been a lot of media focus on the iconic savanna elephants in eastern and southern Africa, very little light has been shed on the forest elephant crisis in central Africa. Here, in what some call Africa’s last Eden, a battle is playing out on multiple fronts for the future of the elusive forest elephant.
The forest elephant is genetically distinct from its better-known “cousin,” the savanna elephant, in a number of important ways. Forest elephants are smaller, have rounder ears, and their tusks are pointed downwards to allow them to better navigate this dense forest environment of the Congo Basin.
After a devastating study revealed that more than 60% the forest elephant population has been lost to poaching in the previous decade, there has been a concerted attempt to try and save those that remain. But it’s an uphill battle: A June 2015 report in Science highlighted the Tridom region (Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon) as one of the top three elephant poaching hotspots in the world today.
This is especially bad news given the forest elephant’s important biological role within its larger ecosystem. They are instrumental in shaping the forests all around the Congo Basin. Uniquely built for such a dense environment, the forest elephant makes its way through the thick underbrush by using its tusks to push plants and small trees aside. While this may sound destructive, it actually helps to let sunlight down to the forest floor, which allows new plants to grow and creates natural clearings and pathways for other animals to use. Their dung is a useful fertilizer, and their herbivorous diet means that the elephants consume and transport seeds all across the forest, aiding in the distribution of plant species. In fact, forest elephants disperse more intact seeds than any other animal in the African forest – and their stomach acids help germinate many of these seeds at a much faster rate. They are true gardeners of the jungle.