Happy World Wildlife Day, (3rd March 2016)! This year’s theme is “The future of wildlife in our hands” with a focus on African and Asian elephants.
Therefore, we wanted to take this opportunity to join conservationists around the world in shining a spotlight on elephants. This blog focuses on the current crisis facing Africa’s forest elephants, which seem to receive far less media attention and conservation support than Africa’s better-known and larger savanna elephants.
There are two sub-species of African elephant: the Savanna elephant and the Forest elephant. The latter is smaller and darker in colour and lives in densely forested parts of Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon and the Central African Republic in central Africa and Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana in West Africa. Despite bans on ivory trade dating back to the 1990s, a recent study shows that 62 per cent of Africa’s forest elephants were killed between 2002 and 2011 (Maisels et al., 2013). The population is now less than 10% of its potential size, occupying less than 25% of its potential range (ibid).
Upemba National Park offers a prime example of the crisis facing Africa’s forest elephants today. It lies in Katanga Province (a region almost the size of Spain) in southeastern DRC and covers 1.2 million hectares. It was created in 1939 to protect elephants, lechwe, hippos and zebra. In a region heavily impacted by mining and conflict, it has provided a relatively safe haven for the last remaining forest elephant populations in Katanga. Habitats within the park have remained largely intact to date and rangers report regularly on the abundance of wildlife such as hippos, buffalo and lions, as well as fish in the lakes and rivers of the park.
There are two herds of forest elephants in Upemba numbering around 100 individuals: Kasenga Mondwe and Bukama Groups. The Kasenga Mondwe herd is becoming severely threatened by poaching. Local armed militia, or Mai Mai, conduct poaching raids on these elephants, which live in remote swampy regions of the park. This Mai Mai group depends solely on poaching, selling ivory to traffickers in cities around Upemba, as well as in neighbouring Zambia.
Despite the park having 162 highly committed guards, poachers are able to operate freely because the park does not have the financial means to pay for the large-scale, long-distance patrols needed to reach more remote parts of the park. Limited resources also mean that guards’ surveillance equipment is out-dated, limiting their ability to protect the park and its elephants.
We have been told by colleagues working in the DRC that if urgent and necessary measures are not taken, the last elephants of Katanga will soon be gone.
The threats facing Upemba National Park’s forest elephants are not unique. African forest elephants typically live in remote, dense forests, sometimes where conflict is taking place, or where armed groups are present. This, combined with a lack of funding for on-the-ground conservation, can make these animals difficult to monitor and protect.
If you would like to know more about how you can help forest elephants and other species living in African forests, please contact us.
- Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa (Maisels et al., 2013)
- Vanishing forest elephants are the Congo’s greatest cultivators (Jeremy Hance, Mongabay, 2009)
- Watch forest elephants in their natural habitat