Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, October 10, 2016

Poaching Aiding Species' Extinction

"We already knew about the scale and severity of poaching, but what was not known before was the long-term ramifications of that poaching."
"This paper shows that things are substantially worse than we expected for forest elephants in terms of how fast they can rebound."
"We're hoping to start piecing the puzzle together and glean more information about these animals. Not the least because it's hard to get motivation and political will to protect things we don't see or know much about."
George Wittemyer, ecologist, Colorado State University

Just as there are various types of humans that have developed special characteristics that benefit them for existence in specialized environments, like the Masai and the Bushmen whom evolution outfitted for the lifestyles they would lead in the savannas on the one hand, in the forests on the other, nature has equipped other animal species in the very same way. The savanna elephant of African lineage is a larger version of the forest elephant; reproduction is slower for the forest elephant, faster for the savanna elephant.

The slow reproduction rate of forest elephants combined with the existential threat of poaching is endangering these beasts at a time when poachers have slaughtered close to 30 percent of Africa's savanna elephants from 2007to 2014, leading to a decline of close to 8 percent yearly. While savanna elephants browse and roam about the grasslands of east and southern Africa, their smaller cousins, now known to represent a distinct species, exist in densely jungled central and western Africa.

A recent survey, named the Great Elephant Census, made no effort to track forest elephants since they are enclosed in the forest, and cannot be identified from the air, a counting method the savanna elephants lend themselves to. Research, however, points to illegal killing of forest elephants to harvest their tusks being responsible for a 62 percent decline in numbers from 2002 to 2013.

Populations of African forest elephants increase in size slowly, putting the animals at greater risk of extinction than their savannah counterparts.  Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

Their situation is exacerbated by their slow reproduction rate, incapable of 'catching up' to their dwindling numbers thanks to illegal killings. A report in The Journal of Applied Ecology clarified that forest elephants represent one of the slowest reproducing mammals on Earth. If all the poachers that targeted these elephants suddenly grew a conscience and ceased, it was calculated that 90 years would be required for forest elephant populations to bulk up to pre-2002 numbers.

 In 1990, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Andrea Turkalo, initiated observations of forest elephants in the Central African Republic's Dzanga Ndoki National Park. The assumption was that forest elephant reproduction would be similar to that of savanna elephants which bear young at age 12, every four years. The researchers soon discovered that reproduction age for forest elephants averages 23 years of age with offspring every five years during their 60-year lifespan.

The theory is that in dense jungles, productivity is reliant on the canopy where what drops from the treetops represents the available food for animals on the ground, essentially limiting the available nutrients required to foster growth and the reproduction function.

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