Slow and Steady Wins the Race? Or Leads to Extinction?

African_Forest_Elephant

                 “African_Forest_Elephant.jpg” by Peter H. Wrege is licensed under CC 3.0

 

Does slow and steady really win the race? In the story of the tortoise and the hare, it does. The hare, being much faster than the tortoise, challenges him to race. The tortoise accepts and races the hare. In the end, the tortoise wins by maintaining a constant speed and because the hare decided to take a nap while in the lead. However, in a race for survival, the same approach does not appear to be working for African forest elephants. Like the tortoise, forest elephants endure their own form of “slowness”, a slow growth rate. Unlike the tortoise though, forest elephants face a more dangerous “competitor”, human poachers. Thus, a slow growth rate coupled with poaching threats is driving forest elephants into extinction rather than into first place.

Now you might wonder, what exactly are African forest elephants? For many years, researchers combined forest, savannah and bush elephants into one group called “African Elephants”. However, recently forest elephants have been recognized as their own species, Loxodonta cyclotis. Upon closer examination, researchers discovered key differences between forest elephants and other elephant species. For example, compared to savannah elephants, forest elephants are smaller in stature, have straighter tusks, have rounder ears and reside in denser tropical forest habitats [4]. These physical characteristics have helped researchers develop a better understanding of forest elephants. However, despite these findings, information on the species functional importance remains fairly limited. According to the World Wildlife Fund, forest elephants may play a critical role in germination of forest trees [2]. However, this theory has yet to be confirmed. Therefore, we need to increase our research efforts in order to have a more thorough understanding of the ecological functions and conservation status of forest elephants.

Fortunately, Turkalo, Wrege, and Wittemyer have already begun to examine forest elephants more closely. In a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the researchers described their results and findings from the very first thorough demographic investigation on forest elephants. They conducted a longitudinal study of a small stable population of forest elephants in Dzanga, Central African Republic. After twenty-three years, the research group uncovered two major findings. First, they discovered that the annual birth rate for the forest elephant population was only “4.3% with a median inter-birth interval of 68 months and a median primiparous (giving birth for the first time) age of 23 years” [1]. Unlike other elephant species, forest elephants are late bloomers when it comes to motherhood. Instead of starting at the ripe age of 11.2-14 years old like savanna elephants, forest elephants do not produce offspring until a decade later. Imagine if people had to wait until their mid to late thirties to have children. There would probably be reductions in family size. Without considering any outside factors, we can see that forest elephants are inherently more susceptible to extinction threats due to their incredibly slow intrinsic growth rate. Therefore, birth rate alone should be a motivating factor to increase our protection of this species especially since its beyond their control.

The second major finding highlights how detrimental human poaching is on forest elephant populations. According to the study by Turkalo, Wrege, and Wittemyer, “average mortality was 3.1% per year with approximately 1.4% of that attributed to human killing” [1]. Human poaching for ivory is a serious problem, contributing to roughly half of forest elephant mortalities each year. The birth rate for forest elephants is already a major handicap for the species, but adding human poaching is making survival seem bleak. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, “more than 60% of forest elephants were poached in the last decade” [4]. That is just too much. As of now, forest elephants have been categorized as “endangered”. And if we do not take serious action against the illegal trade of ivory, this species will become extinct very soon.

Some critics question the reliability of the mortality rate measured for forest elephants in Turkalo’s Wrege’s and Wittemyer’s study. In Dzanga there are strong anti-poaching efforts. Therefore, critics argue that the data could be biased. However, according to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants) in this region is “one of the lowest recorded among forest elephant populations” [3]. In addition, the researcher group structured their study to produce very conservative estimates of mortality. If anything, mortality rates from the study are less than the true value.

During the study, Turkalo stressed, “recovery to population levels in 2000 is likely to require decades” [1]. For African forest elephants, “slow and steady wins the race” can be possible if we eliminate illegal poaching. Stabilizing the population is crucial if we wish to fully understand African forest elephants and their role in the environment.

 

Citations:

[1] Turkalo, A. K., Wrege, P. H. and Wittemyer, G. (2016), Slow intrinsic growth rate in forest elephants indicates recovery from poaching will require decades. J Appl Ecol. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12764

[2] “African Forest Elephant”. WWF, http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/forest-elephant. Accessed 5 September 2016.

[3] CITES (2012), Status of elephant populations, levels of illegal killing and the trade in ivory: a report to the CITES standing committee. (ed. Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), SC62 Doc. 46.1, http://www.cites.org/eng/com/sc/62/E62-46-01.pdf.

[4] “Forest Elephant”. African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/forest-elephant . Accessed 5 September 2016.

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