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No Place Is Safe: Poachers Are Emptying Key African Reserve Of Elephants

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In a mere decade, poaching has decimated forest elephants in Minkébé National Park in Africa, slaughtering about 25,000 or roughly 81 percent of the population in what is supposed to be a key sanctuary.

In the key nature reserve deemed one of the largest and most important in Central Africa, the number of elephants declined by at least 78 percent, according to new findings by a Duke University team.

Losing Elephants To The Ivory Trade

The remote, 2,900-square-mile Minkébé in the country of Gabon acts as a frontliner in the battle against poaching, which seeks to respond to ivory demand in Asia. Now, the region’s elephant population appears to be disappearing fast from just 2004 to 2014.

“With nearly half of Central Africa’s estimated 100,000 forest elephants thought to live in Gabon, the loss of 25,000 elephants from this key sanctuary is a considerable setback for the preservation of the species,” confirmed Duke professor and study author John Poulsen in a statement.

Minkébé is threatened not just by poachers originating from within the country, but by hunters for neighboring ones such as Cameroon, which are believed to have "emptied the northern and central sections of the park,” according to the study published in the journal Current Biology.

Gabonese poachers are killing elephants in the southern part of the park, which is 58 kilometers (36 miles) from the nearest major road. The central and northern sections, on the other hand, are only 6.1 km (3.79 miles) from a national road in Cameroon, making it quite easy for poachers to access their target and move their illegal wares back to the huge city and ivory trade hub of Douala.

To estimate the extent of the elephant population loss, the team compared data from two major surveys of elephant dung in the park during the 10-year period, using two methods accounting for heavy rainfall that could accelerate the dung’s decay and skew survey accuracy. The dung’s abundance and geographic distribution pointed to two fronts where poaching pressure emanates, Poulsen explained.

Curbing Poaching In The Region

The Gabonese government has taken steps to address the problem in Minkébé, including updating the conservation status of the species to “fully protected,” doubling the park’s budget, and being the first African country to burn all confiscated ivory.

While laudable, they do little to stop the illegal trespassing, the team said, recommending the creation of new multinational protected zones and coordinating international law enforcement to prosecute foreigners committing wildlife crimes in other territories.

China, the largest ivory market worldwide, announced in 2016 that it is planning to ban domestic ivory trade by the end of this year. The announcement came months after the United States, another major market, banned the trade of largely all ivory goods to protect the African elephant.

The situation looks grim, but scientists like Poulsen are not even close to giving up.

“As much bad news as we’ve been hearing, I think people are paying attention and there’s more will to conserve the elephants,” he said in a report in The Atlantic. “China’s ivory ban is good evidence of that. I’m optimistic that we can move forward and save both species.”

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