A losing battle to protect forest elephants in Central Africa   

A losing battle to protect forest elephants in Central Africa  

Unless urgent conservation action is taken, the world stands to lose this charismatic species

The African forest elephant has been widely hunted for its tusks and more recently, for its meat, threatening its future survival in Central Africa. The populations of African forest elephants have fallen by over 30 per cent in the last seven years, largely due to poaching.

If urgent conservation action is not taken, the fate of such a charismatic species will be sealed.

The elephant population in Cameroon was estimated at 21,000 in 2010. According to the National Strategy for Elephant Management, the rise in poaching, that has caused the mass killings of about 300 elephants in the northern part of Cameroon in 2012, has contributed to a significant reduction in the elephant population. 

“The ‘Elephant Crisis’ faced by Central African countries is a severe blow to conservation and human well-being,” Marc Languy, deputy director, Central African countries, WWF, said. “It is caused by an unprecedentedly high level of poaching for ivory, fuelled by the illegal international trade”.

In Cameroon, elephant poaching is common within the Deng-Deng National Park and Nja Biosphere Reserve corridors which host more than 450 elephants. The area is known as a major centre for elephant product trade and trafficking.

“Conservation of the elephant population within the Deng-Deng National Park and Nja Biosphere Reserve faces many serious threats,” said Nja Beltin, who works as a conservationist with ERuDeF, a conservation-based, not-for-profit organisation.

Identified by the International Union for Coinservation of Nature (IUCN) as a conservation priority area for threatened species such as forest elephants, western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, the biodiversity records of the Dja complex are among the highest in tropical Africa.

Forest elephants roam these areas and the increasing fragmentation of their habitats and isolation from other populations make them extremely vulnerable.

The elephant population of the Dja conservation complex face an uncertain future.

The 97,800 ha of unprotected forest around the reserve, for example, is the theatre of multiple land uses and natural resource use practices. These not only threaten to isolate the reserve genetically, but also constitute the launching pad for most illegal incursions inside it. 

Among the greatest threats to the survival of forest elephants in the area is commercial logging. Although no logging concession is granted inside the reserve, the entire surrounding forests are attributed as logging concessions by the central administration in Yaoundé.

With commercial logging come two major threats to the survival of the elephants and the ecological integrity of the Dja Reserve.

The first is the establishment of permanent or semi-permanent human settlements or logging camps, usually in pristine forest areas, which attract thousands of migrant workers and their relatives, most of whom are associated with hunting for and trade in ivory for quick financial gains.

The second threat is commercial hunting, usually by the logging camp residents and outside hunters. Due to the heavy machinery and equipment involved, commercial logging provides not only access to previously unexplored and remote, intact forests, but is also the means to take ivory to distant markets.

The Cameroon railway, that passes through the peripheral areas of the Deng-Deng National Park and Dja Biosphere Reserve corridor, has led to serious problems of noise. It has also facilitated access to remote areas and thus increased transportation of elephant bush meat and ivory.

The presence of government, economic operators and external development bodies such as Cameroon Oil Transportation Co and Electricity Development Cooperation in the area has led to an influx of people into the buffer zone.

The increased human population has also led to a high demand for elephant products in the area, thereby promoting illegal hunting and trafficking of ivory.

Earlier, hunters mainly employed traditional trapping techniques. But with the increasing demand for ivory and bush meat, modern techniques are now being used such as automated guns and rifles for hunting. 

Similarly, the construction of a dam in Lom Pangar led to the destruction of habitat and an increase in water levels which draw fishermen from the north part of Cameroon as well as neighboring countries.

It also facilitates access to remote areas and has increased the influx of workers, which, in turn, has increased elephant hunting. Other developmental projects in the area, including the construction of roads by clearing and opening of large forest tracts and construction of settlement camps for workers has led to severe biodiversity loss.

“Law enforcement is crucial to curb the threats occurring in the habitat area and remains an essential determinant for the conservation of elephants in Cameroon,” Samuel Ngueping, landscape officer, Cameroon, WWF, said. “Traces of hunting in the habitat area highlights the limited law enforcement activities.”

It should be noted here that eco-guards appointed by the government of Cameroon who are posted in the areas, are students coming directly from schools, without any field exposure and hence they face challenges translating theoretical knowledge into practice.

Because of their limited skills, the hunters take advantage and engage in rampant hunting of elephants. Furthermore, the eco-guards lack ethical conservation management practices and often engage in abuse and violation of indigenous people's rights.

“Understanding elephant movement patterns, home ranges, land use patterns and corridor use are essential in developing effective conservation strategies,” Marc said.

“The monitoring of the status of elephants is crucial to understand the dynamics of the issue and to support informed decision-making on wildlife management in collaboration with the governments and local communities.”

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