The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced February 6 that a national park, once home to Africa's largest forest elephant population, has lost a staggering 11,100 individuals due to poaching for the ivory trade.
The shocking figures come from Gabon's Minkebe Park, where recent surveys of areas within the park revealed that two thirds of its elephants have vanished since 2004. The majority of these losses have probably taken place in the last five years.
Gabon contains over half of Africa's forest elephants, with a population estimated at over 40,000.
The surveys were conducted by WCS, WWF, and Gabon's National Parks Agency -- Agence Nationale des parcs Nationaux (ANPN). The survey was funded by ANPN, the CITES MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) Program, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This sad news from Gabon confirms that without a global commitment, great elephant populations will soon become a thing of the past," said WCS President and CEO Cristiαn Samper. "We believe that elephants can still be saved -- but only if nations greatly increase their efforts to stop poaching while eliminating the illegal ivory trade through better enforcement and reduced demand."
Until recently, Gabon's elephant herds were believed to be less impacted by poaching than in other parts of Africa, where according to the Born Free Foundation, an estimated 31,800 individuals were lost to poaching last year. However, Gabon's National Park Agency reported an uptick of poaching in recent years, including the 2011 slaughter of 27 elephants in a protected area just outside of the capitol.
In June 2011, a significant increase in human activity in the Minkebe National Park and its buffer zone was detected. A small camp of 300 artisanal gold miners had expanded to over 5,000 miners, poachers, and arms and drugs dealers. Park authorities estimated that 50-100 elephants were being killed daily as a result of increases in demand for ivory from the Far East and resulting price hike.
Since the survey results were announced, Gabon has stepped up its anti-poaching efforts seizing 20 tusks in the nation's capitol of Libreville and arresting poachers who had illegally entered the country from neighboring Cameroon. Gabon's National Park staff recently engaged in a firefight with armed poachers in Minkebe National Park after arresting two individuals carrying six tusks.
Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba announced that Gabon will pass new legislation to further dissuade commercial ivory poachers even more by increasing prison terms to a minimum of three years for ivory poachers and 15 years for poaching and ivory trafficking involving organized crime. Speaking in a cabinet meeting, the president urgently called for a strong, coordinated, and decisive response to this national emergency from all of the security and wildlife management services.
Lee White, head of the ANPN said: "Over the last three years we have deployed 400 additional parks staff, 120 soldiers and 30 gendarmes in our fight to stop illegal killing of elephants for the black market ivory trade. Despite our efforts we continue to lose elephants every day. If we do not turn the situation around quickly the future of the elephant in Africa is doomed. These new results illustrate starkly just how dramatic the situation has become. Our actions over the coming decade will determine whether these iconic species survive."
Richard Ruggiero, Chief of the Branch of the Near East, South Asia and Africa, Division of International Conservation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said: "We are working closely with the Gabonese authorities, who are showing true leadership, but this is a global problem and will require a global solution."
Mike Fay, the WCS explorer who played a key role in convincing the late Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba to create a network of 13 national parks in 2002, said: "Conservation efforts in the Minkebe region have failed to react to the growing pressure of ivory poaching with tragic results. We need rethink how we do business and to act decisively if we are to save the elephant."
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