Africa’s Unknown Elephant: the Forest Elephant

Everyone who has ever thought of going on safari in the African savannas or even watched a nature documentary on TV knows about the African Bush Elephant. Huge and tall, with triangle-shaped ears (often jokingly referred to as Africa-shaped ears!), the Bush Elephant has become an indelible symbol of Africa’s wilderness in the minds of many. But there’s a relative of the Bush Elephant that comparatively few recognize: the Forest Elephant, which makes its home in the impenetrable rainforests of Central Africa’s Congo Basin – one of the wildest and most remote places left on Earth.

For millennia, the Forest Elephant remained relatively free from the onslaught of ivory poaching, mainly due to its elusive habits and preference for some of the harshest and most inhospitable regions of Africa. However, as logging roads begin to open the heart of the equatorial rainforest to poachers and prospectors, these unique animals are increasingly under threat. The Forest Elephant, just determined to be unique enough from the Bush Elephant to be classified a new species, is now approaching dangerously close to extinction.

– What makes the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) different from the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana)?

The Forest Elephant differs dramatically from the Savanna Elephant in terms of both morphology and behavior, almost as much as tigers differ from lions or the Savanna Elephant differs from the Asiatic Elephant. Upon first glance, the primary characteristic of the Forest Elephant immediately apparent is the size – these animals are much shorter and smaller than their Savanna cousins, with shorter and stouter legs. This all makes sense if you examine these characteristics from an evolutionary perspective, where a short stature is a beneficial adaptation in a dense forest habitat. Forest Elephants also have rounder, more circular ears compared to the triangular ears of the Savanna Elephant, and the defining characteristic that is causing their demise – straight, pink ivory.

Behaviorally, they also travel in small family groups of only 2-3 animals (often mothers and young), while males generally travel alone or in small herds. By comparison, Savanna Elephants generally travel in herds ranging from a dozen animals up to more than 500.

– Forest Elephants are in peril

The primary threat to Forest Elephants is poaching for ivory, extremely valuable in Asian markets (especially so for the straight-tusked Forest species); this however is an indirect effect of two main factors expanding their influence in the elephants’ primary habitat in the NW, C and NE Congo basin: expansion of industrial logging, and civil unrest.

The recent expansion of commercial logging into regions such as the Northwest Republic of Congo, Northeast Gabon, and Southwest Central African Republic, and Southeast Cameroon, has deprived the Forest Elephant of arguably its most important defense – the remote nature of its habitat. With logging roads now leading into once pristine habitat, not only can timber companies access this land to harvest pristine regions of primary forest – depriving Elephants of habitat – but, more worryingly, poachers can also gain easy access to some of the most remote areas of forest imaginable, places where access would have required month-long hunting expeditions before.

Another important threat to Forest Elephants that ultimately leads to poaching is civil unrest. Some of the largest populations of Forest Elephants inhabit some of the most unstable regions on Earth, such as the CAR and Democratic Republic of Congo. As a specific example, the Ituri Forest in the remote and far-flung Orientale province of the Northeastern DRC once contained one of the largest individual populations of Forest Elephants. While it still holds impressive numbers of this species, it has suffered huge losses due to the constant lawlessness and civil unrest prevalent in the region. Because the central government and military exercise such weak control over the region, poachers have essentially had free reign over the region’s elephant populations over the last couple of decades.

As a result of poaching (primarily associated with these factors), Forest Elephant populations throughout Africa have declined by almost 60%.

This is a problem as Forest Elephants are a keystone species, essential to the health of Central Africa’s rainforest ecosystems. Forest Elephants are often thought of as nature’s gardeners, for their effects on the forest vegetation ranging from seed distribution, to maintenance of forest cover. Here, they provide an essential service to other forest inhabitants by creating large trails through the impenetrable vegetation and keeping select mineral and water sources clear of trees, providing essential nutrients for other forest wildlife, as well as the elephants themselves. In the Northwest Congo basin, these mineral clearings where wildlife gathers are called bais, the most famous of which is Dzanga Bai.

– Dzanga-Sangha: a last refuge for the Forest Elephant

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve, located in the remote and peaceful Southwest corner of the CAR, a country otherwise marred by conflict and strife. This beautiful region, one of the wildest and most pristine rainforest parks left in Africa, is home to Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bongos, Leopards, and of course, almost 4000 Forest Elephants!

The park’s centerpiece is arguably Dzanga Bai, perhaps the most famous natural spectacle in the Congo basin and one of Africa’s most magical places. In the Bai, a huge clearing several football fields in size, small Forest Elephants families emerge from the forest and meet and mingle with other families, often in congregations of over 100 animals – perhaps the only place in the world where Forest elephants can be observed in these numbers. In this unique place, families which may not have seen other elephants in months, meet, mingle, mate, and reunite.

This bai is also exceedingly important due to its contributions to Forest Elephant research. Andrea Turkalo, a WCS-sponsored American researcher has spent nearly 30 years in the bai, observing the behavior of these elephants every day. Over this time, she has recorded nearly 4000 elephants using the bai, identified through a variety of characteristics such as ear shape and patterning, tusk size, and more, and created identification cards with specific names for each animal. This research, the only long-term demographic study of Forest Elephants in history, has gained innumerable insights into the behavior and daily life of this unique and important species.

However, even in this unique place these Elephants are in danger. In May 2013, following the collapse of the CAR’s central government due to a military coup caused by the rebel group Seleka, Sudanese elephant poachers infiltrated the bai (having received backing by the resident Seleka official) and killed around 30 Elephants. The Elephants left the bai, not returning for 10 days, mortally afraid of the poaching threat.

In more ways than one, this incident was eye opening. The bai, thought of as a natural treasure through the Central African region, was now not so hidden from poachers as biologists and conservationists once believed. Everyone involved understood that once the poachers knew of the bai, they would surely be planning to come back. As a result, Nir Kalron, an Israeli security consultant, installed a complex anti-poaching system at the bai, with a series of security cameras relaying feeds straight to the rangers at park headquarters. A ranger team was deployed at the bai specifically to protect the elephants and efforts were made to ensure the poaching incidents of 2013 never occur again. As of now, they have been successful, holding through the rise and fall of the anti-Balaka and other turbulence of 2014.

Today, the park is peaceful as ever and already accepting adventurous visitors to experience the natural wonders. If you’ve ever thought of going, now is the time to do so. The park and its employees need the funds and the only way to ensure a safe future for the elephants of Dzanga bai and other wonders of the park is through sustained tourism dollars and international support. If you cannot visit, at least provide a donation on the Dzanga-Sangha park website to help ensure a safe future for these unique and valuable Elephants.

Thanks,

Venkat

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