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Veterinary Forum May 2007 (Vol 24, No 5)

Expanding road network depopulating forest elephant

    A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and other groups found that Central Africa's increasing road network , which is penetrating deeper into the Congo Basin, is leading to depopulation of the forest elephant .

    The study, which appears in the journal Public Library of Science, concluded that forest elephants are severely impacted by ivory poachers who use roads to gain access to their remote jungle home. In addition, roads served as conduits of advancing human settlement, fragmenting previously intact forests where elephants live. Forest elephants differ from savanna elephants both genetically and in appearance, having shorter, straighter tusks and being smaller. They are restricted to the forests of West and Central Africa.

    The researchers walked more than 3,700 miles in five countries and covered more than 26,000 square miles in systematic surveys.

    "It is not the physical effect of the road that is the issue, forest elephants actually like roadside vegetation" rather it is the fact that unmanaged roads bring people with their guns and ammunition. They also become direct pipe­lines into pristine forest areas for both human settlement and distant bush meat markets," said Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Dr. Stephen Blake, the study's lead author. A booming illegal ivory trade is driving poaching in these remote forests.

    While the study shows that unmanaged roads are clearly detrimental to forest elephants, it also found that protected areas are critical to elephant survival. Even in protected areas with road access, the incidence of poached animals dropped off, while the overall abundance of elephants increased dramatically.

    The study is the first major scientific survey of forest elephants since 1989, when their population was estimated at approximately 170,000 individuals.

    The researchers predicted that forest elephants will continue to decline unless immediate actions are successfully implemented.

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