Demand for ivory is fuelling an unprecedented rate of illegal killing of elephants in Africa. The rusty-hued ivory of Congo’s forest giants is particularly sought after. Although Congo accounts for only 20% of the remaining habitat for forest elephants in Central Africa, the country also harbours 20% of Africa’s forest elephant population. This places the country in an important position for elephant conservation, but also makes it a strategic target for poachers and ivory traders, especially as other elephant populations in the region dwindle.
Central Africa’s rainforests have lost over 60 percent of their elephant population in the past decade. The current population estimate stands at a shocking low of 40 000. The lucrative ivory trade is facilitated by political instability in many elephant range states, and although illegal killing for the ivory trade is the biggest danger to forest elephants today, habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation are also threats, as is human-elephant conflict. The expanding and unpredictable nature of these threats makes protecting one of Africa’s last forest elephant strongholds one of our biggest priorities.
What’s at stake?
If the current unsustainable rate of exploitation of forest elephants continues this iconic species could become extinct within our lifetime. Losing the world’s largest land mammal would mean the loss of a highly intelligent, iconic species, but the impact spans further than this tragic prospect alone. Forest elephants are referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers’ due to their role in physically transforming the forest as they move through it and feed. They create light gaps by knocking down trees; keep the undergrowth clear by trampling vegetation and speed decomposition by shattering rotting logs. They disperse seeds and fertilise the soil with their dung, compact it with their feet, and cultivate it with their tusks. By digging for essential minerals elephants alter stream flow, creating wet forest clearings, known locally as "bais". All these activities contribute to the ecological functioning of the forest and are essential for the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem. The absence of elephants would bring about severe shifts in the stability of central Africa’s rainforests, affecting countless other species sharing this habitat.