Forest elephants in central Africa are being slaughtered in record numbers. The most comprehensive study ever, done over a decade, shows that poaching — mostly for the Asian market for ivory — has put the forest elephant on the brink of extinction. Poaching has overcome laws and treaties to protect the species. The U.S. government and wildlife groups are struggling to slow the killing. A meeting in March of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species will focus on solutions. Audie Cornish talks to Christopher Joyce.
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Now, to some alarming findings about wildlife in Africa. A 10-year survey looked at the population of forest elephants and found that it fell 62 percent in that time. The study is the largest of its kind, spanning five countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, its neighbor the Republic of Congo and Gabon. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped organize the effort, is saying that extinction looms for the forest elephant because of poaching.
And here to tell us more is NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce. And, Christopher, this study points to poaching specifically as the heart of the problem, and why is that? I mean, how did they rule out other reasons like, say, deforestation?
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Well, they walked literally thousands of miles, scores of researchers. This was, as you said, a huge study. And they found a lot of dead elephants, and they were shot. In fact, the proportion of dead elephants that were shot was the highest they've ever seen. You have carcasses with no tusks. You have less elephant dung in the forested areas. So all of this, which was published in the journal PLOS or PLOS added up to 32,000 illegally killed elephants in 2012, and that is just much bigger than it used to be.
And there's human evidence as well. There are more confrontations with poachers. There's more forest rangers getting shot doing their job. There are more ivory seizures at national borders because the price of ivory has shot up tenfold in five years. So all this makes it clear that the trade is way up.
CORNISH: Also, Chris, why are forest elephants getting hammered so hard compared to, say, the savannah elephants?
JOYCE: A lot has to do with just the luck of the draw. I mean, Central Africa has been in wars. It's got a lot of poverty. There's a lot of corruption there. And this study found that the more corruption you have and the closer roads are to where elephants live, the more poaching you're going to get. So even though savannah elephants are hurting, the problem seems to be much worse in Central Africa.
CORNISH: And what's the role of the forest elephant specifically in the ecosystem of the region?
JOYCE: Believe it or not, forest elephants eat a lot of fruit. They're frugivores, as the scientists call them. And so when they digest the fruit, they spread the seeds when they get rid of the seeds. And that propagates trees and plants far and wide, which is good for the forest. They also turn over the earth, which sort of releases certain soil minerals that makes them available to plants. You know, the elephants evolve with these forests over millions of years. They function together.
CORNISH: Now, this is all coming at the same time as this big meeting in Bangkok. It's the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. And, of course, Thailand is a big market for ivory. So what's been the response from this nation and others?
JOYCE: Thailand's government announced just this week that they're going to make trading ivory in country illegal, and that's a good thing. But the really big market, though, is China. I mean, the experts say that 50 percent of the ivory goes to China. And, you know, there are so many Chinese people working in Africa right now. They're developing Africa, basically, with building dams and power plants and running logging concessions, and that means so many more middlemen are out there in the field. And that makes the trade closer to the source, and it makes it more aggressive.
Many governments, including the U.S., are urging China to crack down on the trade. The Chinese government has made some promises to do that, but education is important here too. I mean, the author of this report, Fiona Maisels, she teaches in Scotland, and she has Chinese students. And she mentions this to them, and they're shocked. In China, they say that the elephants are anesthetized. They're not shot and killed. And so what really needs to be done here most of all is a lot of educating.
CORNISH: You know, Chris, there are so many big-ticket issues, though, that divide the U.S. and China already, I mean, whether it's climate change or currency values. How do you get kind of elephants up there on the radar?
JOYCE: I think you need somebody with a big public persona, somebody who can make elephants, you know, exciting and important and emotional like Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees. I talked with - today with Richard Rugiero, who's with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he's worked with African elephants for 30 years. And he says, you know, it really is an international problem, and it's in- it's not just an African problem. And this is what he said:
RICHARD RUGGIERO: If I live somewhere far away in a developed country like the U.S., if elephants blink out functionally or literally, if they cease to exist, how does that change my life? Does it mean anything to me? And, well, hopefully, people will see the big picture, will see the aesthetics that elephants cannot and should not be reduced to the numbers in a balance book of a business that trades in their teeth.
JOYCE: So clearly, it's a world market, and it's going to take a world of people to make a change.
CORNISH: That's NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce. Chris, thank you so much.
JOYCE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.