Male forest elephant at the Langoué Bai, Ivindo National Park, Gabon.
The fact that human influence is the most predominant factor that affects habitat use by other species is no longer an elephant in the room. Poaching, logging of forests, and the construction of roads have all been major causes to the demise of the African forest elephant population.
The African elephant population has been severely declining over the last ten years and will continue to do so unless big changes are made.
Gabon, Africa is home to over half of the global African forest elephant population. In recent years, the elephant’s population has seen a whopping 62% decrease and its geographical range has been reduced by 30%.
Researchers in Gabon have recently concluded that Multiple Use Areas (aka MUAs) are critical for the conservation of African forest elephants. Multiple Use Areas are defined as regions that support multiple purposes for a variety of species. The MUA in question contains roads, is used for logging, and most importantly provides a connection between national parks and Protected Areas for the elephants.
The MUA provides a type of corridor for the elephants to move into and through for additional resources, especially water sources. Most of these movements are quite short and made during the dry season. A quarter of all the movements are even made by juveniles!
Although it may sound gross to some, researchers determined all of this information by collecting dung sample at several sites in the MUA and the surrounding national parks. DNA was isolated, purified, amplified, and analyzed to look at the sex, age, and ancestry of the elephants from which the samples came. Mitochondrial DNA, which is only inherited from the mother, and therefore highly conserved was analyzed in addition to several other loci in the DNA.
There are almost always more females than males in African forest elephant populations, and these ladies tend to stick together. From the data analysis, researchers also discovered that females were much more prevalent in the MUAs, in groups of course. On the other hand, male elephants were more likely to be found in open areas, like savannah, swamps, and beaches, in the dry season.
One important conclusion that was drawn from the DNA analysis is that some elephants reside in the MUA year-round, while some elephants merely migrate to water sources in the MUAs during the dry season. This illustrates that the MUAs are critical for the elephant populations at all times and are key to their conservation.
The elephants analyzed in this study were found to be from several family groups, not just a bunch of random individuals gathered together for resources. Therefore, MUAs provide an important mechanism for the gene flow between elephants that will increase genetic variation and aid in survival of the species.
Reduction in genetic diversity through a shortage of gene flow, limited access to necessary resources, and habitat fragmentation are only some of the many factors that could cause the downfall of the African forest elephant, but could also be preserved through the maintenance of the current MUA.
With interest in the logging potential of the area building, it is crucial that lawful protection of this MUA not be diminished or removed entirely. In order to save the largest remaining terrestrial animal, it is important that the information from this study be taken into account when decisions concerning the MUA are made because as we all know, elephants never forget.
Reference: EGGERT, L. S., BUIJ, R., LEE, M. E., CAMPBELL, P., DALLMEIER, F., FLEISCHER, R. C., ALONSO, A. and MALDONADO, J. E. (2013), Using Genetic Profiles of African Forest Elephants to Infer Population Structure, Movements, and Habitat Use in a Conservation and Development Landscape in Gabon. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12161
Photo courtesy of Peter H. Wrege
Modern article by Shelby Priest