The Fate of the Forest Elephant

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I wrote about the forest elephant in September upon my return from the Republic of Congo. The thrill of seeing these secretive creatures notwithstanding, our visit was overshadowed in spirit by descriptions of twin evils plaguing the elephant populations:  commerce and war.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is as remote as a national park can be.  The primary and sole “highway” in the region is a pitted, dirt (or mud, depending upon the season), single lane road that connects Congo to neighboring Gabon. Most of the park is accessible only by foot, and even that is near impossible in many areas.  Impenetrable and remote — this should be fairly secure habitat for all creatures.  But commerce is intruding, and the Chinese are the primary drivers.  As they are doing in many African countries, the Chinese offer to build roads as a goodwill gesture if they are permitted to harvest minerals and in this case timber. The “highway” is being paved by Chinese workers. The lumber is being harvested by Chinese workers. While improved roads are generally a “good thing,” increased accessibility to isolated elephants helps poachers as well.  The lumber operations will also reduce habitat.

The impact is already being felt. A recent CNN Report reveals how Chinese construction camps are proving to be conduits to the ivory trade.  Chinese workers are suspected of poaching elephants and using the cover of their legitimate lumbering operations to transport the ivory out.  The meager law enforcement establishment is no match for the size and scope of the Chinese presence.  Tourism to the region is in its infancy; the poor and sparse local population has yet to appreciate what economic benefits their wildlife resources may produce as new safari camps are opened. Neighboring Gabon has lost 80% of its elephant population; Congo beckons to the poachers.

Just north of Republic of Congo is the war-torn, impoverished Central African Republic.  CAR is home to Dzanga Bai, the most famous and prolific Bai in the Congo Basin.  A large open, wetland, as in the photo above, the Bai is the social center for an abundance of wildlife.  This is where the most important research on the forest elephant is taking place. Andrea Turkalo, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been studying elephants at Dzanga for two decades and is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in their behavior. In a recent interview, she described how the war in CAR forced her to leave her research post last spring. The insurgents have used poaching to fund their weapons.  While private interests have stepped in to guard Dzanga Bai, the rest of the area is completely unprotected.  It is not yet safe for her to return.

The Congo Basin region hosts all remaining forest elephants, perhaps 70,000.  It is a complicated part of the world and unlikely to become any less complicated in our lifetime.  The only hope for the forest elephant is a collapse of the market for ivory.