Elephant Slaughter Discovered Along African "Highways of Death"

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2007
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.

Death Roads

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.

Researchers walked over 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) in five countries to conduct the survey, during which they used the elephants' dung to estimate their numbers.

Poaching activity was gauged by the number of carcasses found with gunshot holes in their skulls, missing tusks, or other evidence of illegal killing.

The likelihood of finding slaughtered elephants decreased with distance from the nearest road, the study found, with none discovered farther than 28 miles (45 kilometers) away.

The influence of roads on elephant numbers was reflected in the different protected areas surveyed, the team said.

Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo was three times larger than any other wilderness reserve studied, yet the team put its forest elephant population at just 1,900.

Salonga is crisscrossed with old roads and navigable rivers that provide human access to nearly half its 14,000 square miles (36,000 square kilometers).

In contrast, two smaller national parks in the region had elephant densities more than ten times higher than Salonga. Both parks have remote areas at least 37 miles (60 kilometers) from the nearest roads.

Distant Roads

The situation may be far worse outside of protected areas, where wildlife conservation measures such as anti-poaching patrols are scarce, the team added.

The team found that even in national park areas with road access, incidents of poaching were lower and elephant abundance higher than just beyond their boundaries.

Blake, of the WCS, said that while logging is the main spur for new road construction, old highway networks are also being rehabilitated in countries including DRC, which has recently emerged from civil war.

"Such roads obviously bring important social benefits for people, but biodiversity conservation is often last on the list of considerations behind economic factors," he said.

Blake and his team are calling for better planning and development of roads to minimize impacts on wildlife.

The WCS-led survey was carried out as part of a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) program aimed at countering poaching of forest elephants.

The poaching is driven by a booming illegal ivory trade to nations such as China.

(Read related story: "Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say" [October 27, 2006].)

Conservationists fear that legalizing even limited trade in ivory from savanna elephants in southern African countries where populations are no longer threatened would put the forest elephant in even graver danger.

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