Why did the elephant cross the road? It didn't according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants that says endangered forest elephants are avoiding roadways at all costs. The authors of the study believe that these highly intelligent animals now associate roads with danger – in this case poaching, which is rampant in Central Africa's Congo Basin.
According to the study, which appears in the October 27th issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoSONE), forest elephants have adopted a "siege mentality," forcing populations to become increasingly confined and isolated. This in turn reduces these normally far-ranging animals' ability to find suitable habitat; thereby threatening long-term conservation efforts.
The study, which tracked 28 forest elephants with GPS collars, discovered that roads, particularly those outside of parks and protected areas, attract poachers and therefore have become formidable barriers to elephant movements. In fact, only one of the collared elephants crossed a road outside of a protected area and it did so at 14 times its normal speed.
The authors found that even in the largest remaining wilderness areas in Central Africa, forest elephants showed adverse reactions to roads, and that truly unconfined forest elephants traveling unfettered over wide landscapes may no longer exist anywhere in Central Africa. The results spell bad news for these endangered pachyderms, since a boom in road-building is currently underway throughout much of the region.
"Forest elephants are basically living in fear of their lives in prisons created by roads. They are roaming around the woods like frightened mice rather than tranquil formidable giants of their forest realm," said Dr. Stephen Blake, the study's lead author. "Forest elephants are under siege with all of the graphic images that go with it – increasing the likelihood of fear, starvation, disease, massive stress, infighting, and social disruption."
The siege strategy may reduce the risk from poaching, but as roadless space decreases, it will likely result in loss of access to food and important mineral deposits. This will most likely result in aggressive negative behavior among elephants from different social groups, which in turn can affect reproductive success. Other negative impacts include overgrazing of local vegetation and reduced seed dispersal by elephants, which is vital to helping regenerate forests.
The WCS scientists who worked on the study include: Stephen Blake (who now works for the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology), Samantha Strindberg, Fiona Maisels, William Karesh, and Michael Kock. Other authors include Sharon Deem from the WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo and University of Missouri, Ludovic Momont from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Inogwabini-Bila Isia from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants.
The authors report that since the data were collected, new road construction has already resulted in enormous losses of roadless wilderness areas in three of their six study sites in Republic of Congo and neighboring Gabon. Other multi-billion dollar development projects loom that include massive road development. However, the authors say there is still time to plan for wise development that includes diverting roads away from wilderness areas, and reducing poaching of elephants.
"A small yet very feasible shift in development planning, one that is actually good for poor local forest people and for wildlife and wilderness, would be a tremendous help to protect forest elephants and their home," said Blake. "Planning roads to give forest elephants breathing space so that at least those in the deep forest can relax, as well as reduce the death and fear that comes with roads by reducing poaching, would be trivial in terms of cost but massively important for conservation."
WCS elephant conservation efforts have been supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's African Elephant Conservation Fund, Save the Elephants, U.S. Agency for International Development Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)Global Environmental Facility (GEF Congo), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species' (CITES) Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Program, University of Maryland, Society for Conservation and Development, the European Union's Espèces Phares Project and the Central African Network of Protected Areas and Columbus Zoo. The African Elephant Conservation Fund was enacted in 1990 to address the devastating affect of illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory.
Since its enactment, the Fund has awarded over $18 million in grants and leveraged an additional $75 million in private and other government support for conservation projects that range from anti-poaching patrols, scientific monitoring and survey work, reduced human-wildlife conflicts to reduced trade in elephant parts. The USAID Biodiversity Program is the single largest U.S. government contributor to biodiversity conservation in developing countries and the existence of elephants serves as an indicator for the health of the CARPE landscapes.
The CITES MIKE Program was established in 1997 to measure and record levels and trends of illegal hunting and trade in ivory in elephant range states, assess trends linked to changes in the listing of elephant populations in the CITES appendices and/or the resumption of legal international trade in ivory and build capacity in elephant range states. Since its inception, the MIKE Program has supported the gathering of much needed illegal hunting and ivory trade trends through surveys, GIS data analysis and other methodologies which have informed the critical decisions taken by CITES on elephant issues.
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