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Counting critically endangered forest elephants

A team of scientists led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has published a new method for counting African forest elephants. These elephants were recently recognized by the IUCN as being a critically endangered species that is distinct from African savannah elephants. 

“The more accurately we can count forest elephants, the more we can measure whether conservation efforts are successful,” said study lead author Alice Laguardia.

“We are hopeful that the results of this study will help governments and conservation partners protect this Critically Endangered species throughout its range.”

The research is part of a larger initiative to conduct the first nationwide census for more than 30 years in Gabon, a country along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa.

Scientists typically use aerial surveys to count savannah elephants, but forest elephants cannot be detected so easily. To determine the best method to count them, the team compared the use of traditional methodologies with spatial capture-recapture (SCR) techniques. 

“We compare DNA- and camera trap based-spatial capture-recapture approaches to the widely-used, dung-based line transect distance sampling (LTDS) method to assess their performance when applied to three relatively large populations of forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis,” explained the study authors.

The study showed that a method using camera traps for SCR and DNA sampling was the most accurate and least expensive way to count forest elephants.

Camera trap surveys were more precise on smaller scales but more expensive. The experts recommend that the use of both SCR methods, and their development, continue. 

The researchers said that future findings and improvements should be compiled across studies to ensure their robust evolution as an option for monitoring the African forest elephant across its range and inform strategies and action for its conservation.

In recent years, forest elephants have been severely impacted by ivory poachers. A WCS census that was released in 2014 showed that forest elephants declined by 65 percent between 2002 and 2013. Through the new study, researchers can gain a better understanding of how many forest elephants remain and where they reside. 

Gabon is considered the most important country for forest elephant conservation. Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the species’ range, Gabon is thought to harbor more than 50 percent of the remaining forest elephant population.

Lee White is the Gabonese Minister of Water, Forests, the Seas, the Environment, charged with Climate Change & Land Use Planning. 

“As long as ivory is a precious commodity, elephants will be at risk,” said White. “In Africa there is a clear link between environmental governance, peace and security. Countries that have lost their elephant populations have all too often descended into civil strife. Through the results of this study we hope to obtain a clear picture of the trend of poaching and elephant populations in all of Gabon.”

Ted Schmitt is the director of conservation at Vulcan Inc., a Seattle company that funded the research.

“Vulcan recognizes the significant role of accurate population data for conservation management and policy decisions,” said Schmitt.

“By providing timely census data, we can fill critical knowledge gaps and enable prioritization of conservation resources. We are pleased to be part of this effort with Wildlife Conservation Society and the government of Gabon to help preserve this important species.”

The study is published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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