Gabon is the last stronghold of the endangered African Forest Elephant
Bungara National Park Habitat loss and poaching have made African forest elephants a critically endangered species. However, the dense forests of sparsely populated Gabon in the Congo River Basin remain the “last bastion” of the wondrous creatures, according to new research concluding that the population is much higher than previous estimates.
Counting forest elephants is a much bigger challenge than surveying plains savannah elephants from the air. It takes hard and dirty scientific work that doesn’t involve laying eyes on elusive animals that escape at the slightest whiff of human odor.
Instead, the researchers made long treks through dense undergrowth to collect dung from Gabon’s forest elephants and analyzed DNA from thousands of samples to determine how many individual elephants were on each plot of land examined.
Now the survey by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Gabon’s National Parks Association, released Thursday, concludes that the central African country of about 2.3 million is home to about 95,000 forest elephants.
Previous estimates put the population at between 50,000 and 60,000 – or about 60% of the world’s remaining African forest elephants.
Herds have been virtually decimated elsewhere in the region that Gabon shares with conflict-ridden countries such as Cameroon, Congo and Central African Republic, according to researchers.
Central Africa has the world’s largest population of forest elephants, though numbers have fallen by more than 86% over a 31-year period, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which points to growing threats from poaching and habitat loss.
The latest new survey in Gabon is “the first DNA-based national assessment of a large-sized mammal in Africa,” according to the researchers. The technology is also used to count elephants and tigers in India.
“Gabon is absolutely unique, certainly for forest elephants. Across Africa where elephants are found, it is very unique in terms of…
“We found elephants spread over nearly 90% of the country’s total area,” she said. “As you know, Gabon has a forest cover of 88% of the country. This is very unusual.”
In Gabon, tourists may still see some elephants on the beaches and coastal forests on the Atlantic coast. But, unlike their larger savannah cousins who roam the plains of South Africa in abundance, most forest elephants live in dense forests, so counting them is hard work.
The solution: Train their dung for genetic material. For three years, research teams would spend a month in the bush, walking 12 kilometers (about 7 miles) a day looking for elephant fecal samples, breaking for only a week at a time.
The team walked through patches of savannah, woodland, wooded wetlands and rivers, following elephant tracks marked by broken tree branches, old dung heaps and footprints in search of new dung.
“We’ve got some dung here,” said ranger Fabrice Menzim, after walking about three kilometers (1.8 miles) in Bungara National Park on the Atlantic coast during fieldwork in 2020. The moving team members rushed inside. Upon closer examination, disappointment ensued. The dung was more than a day old.
The researchers want the manure to be “freshly steamed,” Stokes said. “So, it’s warm, it’s fresh, it has a sheen. The idea is to take the outside of that dung pile; a very small amount is needed in the purpose-built pipes that are taken out by the field teams.”
Stool swabs were put into small test tubes and transported to the state wildlife genetic analysis laboratory in the capital, Libreville, where scientists extracted DNA from about 2,500 samples collected across the country.
The extraction of DNA from dung samples is “a bit like a cooking recipe, by following several steps” to remove vegetation and seeds arising from the elephants’ diet, bacteria or organisms that develop on the dung, said Stephanie Bourgeois, a researcher with the parks agency. Co-author of the research paper. “That’s why you have to clean it up and try to purify your DNA before you get your analysis done.”
“DNA is unique to each individual, as it is for humans as it is for elephants. So DNA is just a tool that helps us identify individuals and how often we sample each of those individuals,” Bourgeois said in the lab. “We use a complex statistical model and from this we estimate the number of elephants present in the area we sampled.”
This is the first national census of elephants in Gabon in 30 years. Only 14% of the country’s elephant habitat has been surveyed in the past decade, according to researchers. Previous surveys, they said, relied on dung count, which can be more expensive, more difficult and less reliable than DNA sampling in large-scale surveys.
“This is an exciting research paper because it dramatically increases population estimates of forest elephants in Gabon and establishes a rigorous new nationwide monitoring methodology,” said John Paulsen, associate professor of tropical ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He did not participate in the research.
“At the same time, the government of Gabon now has an enormous responsibility to conserve forest elephants in the face of poaching, especially human-elephant conflict and crop raids,” Paulsen said.
About 65% to 70% of all African forest elephants living today live in Gabon, according to Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water and Forests.
“This is an indication of the fact that Gabon has resisted the massacres and tragedy that occurred in the countries around Gabon,” White said.
Conservation efforts include widespread public awareness campaigns and efforts to deter cross-border poachers.
“You see it all over Africa. Countries that have lost their elephants, lost control of their natural resources, and often lost control of their country.” Countries that have almost no elephants have gone through civil wars and are much less stable than countries that have kept their elephants, White said. .”
However, the minister said, Gabon is facing its own elephant problems as well as cross-border ivory poaching, which he says has decreased since China banned ivory imports.
One of the big problems is the conflicts between humans and elephants that kill about 10 people a year, he said in an interview at the recent climate conference in Glasgow. “When I go into rural Gabon, I feel a lot of angry people screaming at me because elephants have eaten their crops and, even tragically, sometimes killed their relatives.”
White said one reason elephants invaded the village’s crops may be that global warming has dramatically reduced the abundance of forest fruit over the past 40 years. “So, it seems that climate change is starting to affect the forest,” he said. “That means the elephants are hungry.”
Associated Press reporter Allen G. Breed contributed from Raleigh, North Carolina and Associated Press reporter David Keaton contributed from Glasgow, Scotland.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.