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Why Africa's forest elephants thrive in Gabon

Forest elephants are seen at Langoue Bai in the Ivindo national park, on April 26, 2019 near Makokou   -  
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Counting elephants on the savannah is as easy as launching a drone or a helicopter, but taking a census of Africa's elusive forest elephants in Gabon are another matter altogether.

A report on a painstaking and time consuming survey by the National Parks of Gabon and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society has just been published and shows these parklands are home to 95,000 forest elephants.

Previous estimates put the population at between 50,000 and 60,000 — or about 60% of the world's remaining African forest elephants.

Herds have been virtually decimated elsewhere in the this troubled region.

Gabon neighbours conflict-ridden countries such as Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, and according to researchers these disputes are taking their toll on elephant populations.

Emma Stokes is Regional Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and knows first hand how tricky it is to try and get a realistic figure for the herds that are left:

"They occur in smaller groups they can be quite secretive and quite quiet in the forest for such a large land mammal."

She says: "Even when walking in the forest, it's very difficult to see forest elephants."

The elephants official name is Loxodonta cyclotis.

This year it was listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The organisation says more than 80 percent of the global population is estimated to have been lost since 1984, it says the majority of that loss happened in the nine years between 2002 and 2011.

The IUCN says the African Forest Elephants take longer to regenerate any reductions in their population, they recover three times more slowly than African Savannah Elephants.

Keeping on top of what's happening to the herds is hard work.

"Perhaps the most prevalent signs they leave behind is their dung" says Stokes.

In the forests of Gabon researchers have spent years trekking through dense undergrowth to collect the animal's dung.

They need it to analyze the DNA from thousands of samples to determine the number of individual elephants in each plot of land examined.

In the laboratory the DNA is cleaned and purified before being analyzed.

It's used as a tool to help identify individual elephants, the laboratory staff say they then use complex statistical models to estimate the number of elephants in the area sampled.

It's this work which has told researchers that these dense forests of sparsely populated Gabon in the Congo River Basin remain a "last stronghold" of the magnificent creatures, despite poaching and loss of habitat.

The same technology is being used to count elephants and tigers in India.

The research just published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation confirms that the Central African nation of Gabon is the forest elephant's main stronghold.

According to the researchers Gabon is quite unique for forest elephants, but also the distribution of the elephants is unusual in that they cover 90 percent of the country.

Lee White, Gabon's Minister of Forests, Oceans, Environment and Climate Change explains: "Because their ivory is so precious to these criminal groups, they're what goes, what goes first."

Stokes agrees:

"In areas where they've experienced poaching pressure, they also kind of develop a healthy fear, I guess, of humans."

She explains how they avoid humans:

"Yeah. Elephants have an excellent sense of smell. And they'll catch wind of you, certainly if the wind is blowing in the right direction, long before you have any idea they're there."

In order for the researcher's work to count Stokes says it's important the dung collected is new:

"The key thing for this method is the dung has to be fresh," Stokes says. "So, steaming fresh."

White, a co-author of the report in the journal says the reason Gabon's forest elephant numbers are up 50 percent since the last census in the 1990's is because the country has invested in getting people to see the benefits of sustainable forestry:

"We've done a lot of work educating people about the protected status of elephants, and so the Gabonese people tend to respect elephants and not kill them."

Despite the improvements White warns the future of these forests elephants is far from secure.

But he says climate change has degraded the forests to the point where the elephants are increasingly encroaching on human settlements, most likely in search of food.

"The elephants today are much thinner than they were 20 years ago," he says, citing a recent study showing a massive decline in forest fruiting in the country. "You can see their ribs sticking out. You can see their backbone sticking out."

White says a nation's ability to protect its elephants is an indication of its overall stability and he attributes Gabon's relative success with the species to its relative peace and calm:

"You see it around Africa. Countries that have lost their elephants, have lost control of their natural resources, have often actually lost control of their countries."

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