The most comprehensive survey conducted of elephant numbers in the Central African nation of Gabon since the late 1980s has found elephants occurring in higher numbers than previously thought.

The study, which was conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Gabon’s National Park Agency (ANPN) and Vulcan using a new non-invasive survey technique, estimates that 95,000 forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) now live in Gabon, confirming it as the principal stronghold for this species, which is considered Critically Endangered by IUCN. The technical improvements enabled a more accurate estimate than previous methods confined to dung counts.

The findings provide hope for the future of the species and the impact that conservation-focused policies can have in encouraging wildlife protection if effectively implemented. The study’s results, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, mark the first-known DNA-based assessment of a free-ranging large mammal in Africa.

Said Emma Stokes, WCS Regional Director for Central Africa and a co-author of the study: “These results underscore the importance of Gabon as a critical stronghold for forest elephants – containing some 60-70 percent of Africa’s forests elephants. Gabon, together with the northern Republic of Congo, probably hold as many as 85 percent of remaining forest elephants – in large and relatively stable populations. With significant declines in forest elephants reported across much of the rest of the Congo Basin, these two nations will determine the future for the forest elephant in Africa."  

President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon said: VManaging forests, protecting our parks and fighting organised criminal and terrorist groups, who plunder our natural resources, is not easy. It requires constant vigilance, technical knowhow, logistical capacity, sustainable funding and most importantly, courageous, dedicated, incorruptible forest managers."

Lee White, Minister of Water and Forests, the Sea, the Environment charged with Climate Planning and Land Use Plan, said: “These results demonstrate that Gabon, under the active leadership of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, has been able to buck the trend of forest elephant decline. This is down to the courage and dedication of our national parks rangers, who are very much in the line of fire. In Africa there is a clear link between healthy elephant numbers and natural resource governance – most countries that have lost their elephant populations have also experienced civil war and instability.”

Christian Tchemambela, ANPN Executive Secretary, said: “The data on the forest elephant population is now clearer. This is a big step forward. Our teams have developed more reliable methods, particularly in our genetics laboratory. This scientific evidence can now be used to support decision-making.”

The team used spatial capture-recapture (SCR) techniques based on non-invasive molecular sampling from dung. Unlike savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), which can be accurately counted by aerial surveys, forest elephants often live deep in rainforests making their populations more difficult to estimate. African forest elephants were recently acknowledged by IUCN as a separate species from savannah elephants.

The study found that Gabon has not only more forest elephants than any other country but also the largest intact habitat in the species’ range, with elephants found over more than 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles) which represents some 90 percent of the country.

Although elephants were found across Gabon, the highest elephant densities were found in relatively flat areas where there was more suitable elephant habitat available (i.e. forests or forest-savannah mosaics). The lowest elephant densities were found in more hilly terrain or in areas with less suitable elephant habitat (i.e. near cities, or roads).

The team found low elephant densities immediately adjacent to international borders. Neither protected areas nor human pressure in Gabon strongly predict elephant densities. This means that good elephant habitat is not necessarily restricted to protected areas.

Said the lead author of the study, Alice Laguardia of WCS: “Our findings offer a useful nationwide baseline and status update for forest elephants that will inform adaptive management and stewardship of one of the last remaining forest elephant strongholds. These results are of interest to local, national, and international decision-makers concerned with the conservation of this species and its habitat, with the important ecological role of forest elephants on climate regulation potential of forests, and with forest elephants as a useful indicator for healthy, intact and well-governed forests.”

But it was not all good news, with researchers reporting that pockets of low elephant density from recent poaching events remain and have yet to recover.

Across Central Africa, forest elephants have been decimated by ivory poachers in recent years across their range. Gabon is unique in the region in having elephants still distributed at relatively high densities across most of the country. With the exception of Gabon and parts of northern Congo, many other countries have experienced catastrophic declines in forest elephant populations over the last two decades: a WCS-led study released in 2014 documented a 65 percent decline in forest elephant numbers between 2002 and 2013. 

Elephants can act as a useful indicator of healthy forests and that good management of forests both inside and outside of protected areas can have benefits for both climate and biodiversity. A 2019 study linked forest elephant presence to significantly greater carbon storage through their browsing that effectively thins the forest of smaller trees, thus promoting growth of larger, more carbon rich trees.  

“We believe conservation efforts must be founded on solid data,” said Lara Littlefield, Executive Director of Partnerships & Programs at Vulcan. “The 2016 Great Elephant Census of savannah elephants led to support for programs that benefitted threatened populations and communities. We are confident this important new study will lead to targeted efforts to protect endangered forest elephants.”

Funding for this critical work was provided by Vulcan, a Seattle company founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen and his sister Jody Allen. Other funders include Assala Energy Ltd. (UK); the World Bank under the GeFaCHE project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), (USA); Gabonese Government and the Gabonese National Parks Agency (ANPN) (Gabon).