for National Geographic News
Central Africa's growing network of roads is creating "highways of death" for critically endangered forest elephants that are being slaughtered for their ivory, conservationists warn.
New roads penetrating deep into the dense rain forests of the Congo Basin region are giving poachers better access to the last refuges of these jungle elephants, the latest research shows.
A team led by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that forest elephant numbers plummeted near roadways due to illegal poaching.
The findings were the result of survey of 26,000 square miles (68,000 square kilometers) of protected wilderness stretching from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to southwestern Gabon (see map of Africa).
More than 50 poaching camps and 41 slaughtered elephants were discovered by the team, which has reported its findings in the journal Public Library of Science Biology.
At last count, taken in 1989, an estimated 170,000 forest elephants remained in the wild.
The current figure may be much lower, the study team warned, due to road construction fueled by logging and development that are eating into forest elephant territory.
"There's no doubt whatsoever that numbers have seriously declined," said WCS biologist Stephen Blake, the study's lead author.
"Their range is being severely restricted by the advancing human front, and elephants are being killed even in the heart of protected national parks. Unmanaged roads are highways of death for forest elephants.
"It is not the physical effect of the road that is the issue—forest elephants actually like roadside vegetation—rather it is the fact that unmanaged roads bring people, with their guns and ammunition," he added.
Forest elephants are different from their better known savanna cousins, being smaller in size and having shorter, straighter tusks. Relatively little is known about the mammals' biology because they live in dense forests.
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