Sad angry elephants: the consequences of poaching on forest elephants


Poaching, roads and lots of humans can actively make elephants sad, depressed, stressed and very angry. These are just some of the fascinating facts I recently learnt reading an essay article on the consequences of poaching and human-caused changes to the environment on forest elephants. The article, published in Conservation Biology in the October issue by  Breuer et al. was focused on what basic research needs to be done to understand what is actually causing declines with forest elephants, and urging researcher to go further than just documenting how much of the populations have disappeared. We know elephants are declining at a frightening rate: we know that ivory poaching has caused forest elephants to decline by 62% in the last ten years. But what does this mean for elephants, in their day to day lives? And what can researchers do to understand this?

Forest elephants are one of the two species of elephants found in Africa, the other being savanna elephants. Savanna elephants are the ones everyone around the world has seen, huge herds tramping majestically through the savanna. Their cousins, forest elephants, are a lot less well-known, for the simple reason that they are very, very difficult to find. They lead secretive lives in the middle of the central African forests, in small groups comprised of a mom elephant and one or several offspring. These are not the huge herds of the African plains. They do come together in forest clearings occasionally, appearing suddenly for seemingly preordained meetings with extended family. These events are for elephants what they are for us: opportunities to play, have fun and most importantly, establish traditions and pass on family knowledge to the little ones.

But poachers know all about these meetings, and this can drastically affect these vital opportunities for socializing. Human activity has been found to shorten these visits and immediately cause the elephants to become nocturnal.They even avoid moving in these clearings on moonlit nights. It can take years for elephants to regain their confidence and come back to these clearings. The main reason for this is elephants are incredibly intelligent social animals. Once elephants experience gunshots and encounter carcasses of dead elephants, their behavior and societies change completely. Elephants mourn their dead, show empathy and recognize dead family members. Females who have lost close kin experience chronic stress,  and survivors of traumatic events such as poaching show psychological and social problems for decades afterwards. Also, when a baby elephant has lost its mother, it has a far greater change of dying, even if others in the group take over responsibility for it. This elevated mortality lasts way beyond usual, well into an elephants twenties. While reading these facts, I was struck time and time again on how similar all of this was to humans who had lost loved ones and experienced trauma.


Apart from these individual effects, there are larger problems with the loss of elephants to poaching. Poachers always choose the largest elephants to hunt: the larger the ele, the more the ivory.  But this is bad for a number of reasons. The larger forest elephant males are extremely aggressive, and like savanna elephants, are known to play a vital role in the social structure of the population. Basically, these big boys keep the teenage males in check, and without them the teenagers run wild. They become hyper-aggressive, knocking over trees, harassing females and raiding neighboring farmlands, escalating conflict with people. If poachers kill larger, old females, vital knowledge is lost from the population forever, as younger elephants can then not benefit from their years of accumulated knowledge. These females are also very important for social cohesion, and if killed, antagonism between the remaining females increases.

Another important effect of poaching and human-caused disturbance is that elephants squash into smaller and smaller areas, where they think themselves safe from humans. Elephants become unwilling to cross roads, meaning that these small groups of elephants become isolated from one another.  This compression into smaller and smaller areas means that elephants can begin to damage the vegetation.  Crop-raiding by elephants will also become more and more of a problem in these areas where elephants are super abundant. Elephants are able to adapt quickly to any attempt by farmers to reduce their crop raiding and can even learn new crop-raiding techniques from others. Areas where elephants have become super concentrated are therefore likely to have elevated levels of conflict with humans. This has negative effects that go both ways: elephants traumatized by poaching are more aggressive to humans,  while human injury or crop loss caused by elephants makes local communities less supportive of conservation!

Forest elephants are now found in a few areas of intact forest in Gabon, Cameroon and Rep. of Congo. Logging is particularly prevalent in these countries, and although logging can help to exclude poachers, it also opens up roads into pristine areas of forest that would otherwise be very difficult for poachers to get to. The fact is that all elephants found outside of protected areas are under threat from poachers.  As more and more forest is either logged, or transformed into palm oil plantations (the scourge of all forests the world over) elephant habitats will continue to shrink. But why should we care? Apart from elephants being wonderful, intelligent creatures in their own right, they are also vital for the dispersal of many forest seeds and therefore are partly responsible for the forests themselves. Researchers have found that areas of forest lacking elephants have much lower diversity of tree species and that these areas shift to trees that are smaller, grow fast and ultimately store less carbon. This will have knock-on effects to all of the other  smaller forest creatures that depend on a diversity of trees for survival


The solutions to the problem of poaching for ivory will ultimately come from large scale changes on the demand side of things: if people no longer value ivory so highly there will be little incentive to poach elephants. However on a smaller scale, we need to answer some vital questions.  Are the protected area network in these central African countries adequate for elephants habitat requirements and ranging patterns? Where are the remaining populations of elephants outside of these protected areas? How do logging and palm oil plantations directly affect elephant populations? How are elephants changing their behavior to deal with increased poaching? How does poaching impact the chances of a population recovering in numbers in terms of reproduction changes?  This article highlights just how much we don’t know about these secretive giants. And based on current decline, we don’t have very long to find the answers.

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