The Wildlife Conservation Society says Central Africa's forest elephants will need a century to recover from illegal hunting. Their study reveals the huge extent of the rare animal's decline.
Describing how the population of Central Africa's forest elephants had fallen from an estimated 500,000 in 1993 to 100,000 in 2013, study co-author George Wittemyer said Wednesday that poaching was decimating the elephant population faster than they can replace themselves.
"The forest populations are reproducing now, though at a very slow rate," Wittemyer told AFP news agency by email.
"The problem is that poaching is removing individuals at a rate that either drives the population to decline or negates any increases due to births."
The study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society is the first analysis of the demography of the elusive forest elephant, which are smaller than the other, better studied African sub-species, the savannah elephant.
The team analyzed data obtained from decades-long, on-sight monitoring of the births and deaths of elephants at Dzanga Bai, a park in Central African Republic.
The study showed number of forest elephants had declined by 65 percent over two decades, mostly due to poaching.
They concluded the creature, which roams the tropical forests of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo, was a much slower breeder than its open-air cousin.
Huge drop in numbers
Wittemyer told AFP that the forest elephant is thought to have numbered about one to two million at its peak.
The creatures are targeted by local poachers for their meat, and to meet demand for their ivory in China and other fast-growing Asian economies.
Co-author Peter Wrege of Cornell University told the Reuters news agency that the number of remaining forest elephants could now be as low as 70,000.
Ninety years to recover
"To come back to the population it was before 2002, based on their fatality rates, it could take nearly a century to recover," Wrege said.
Forest elephants are also regarded by biologists as a "keystone species" that helps to ensure the robustness of central Africa's wooded ecosystems, researchers said.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, comes ahead of a meeting later this month, where Zimbabwe and Namibia are expected to push the United Nations for permission to sell ivory stocks, to help raise badly-needed funds for conservation.
mm/kms (AFP, Reuters)