Saturday, June 18, 2011

Elephants as bushmeat

In a BBC science and nature report of June 15th author Victoria Gill recounts how the forest elephants of Africa face extinction. Her piece is titled Elephants Face Same Extinction Fate as Woolly Mammoth and you can find it here.

Quoting Professor Adrian Lister of the UK's Natural History Museum she relates how wooly mammoths that once roamed in their millions in the UK and across northern Europe and North America were squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. Professor Lister says that forest elephants are suffering from the same "double whammy" that claimed the woolly mammoths - habitat loss and hunting.
"Today both of those sides of the pinch are caused by humans."

Gill suggests that history may be repeating itself. This is because as the dense rain forests of central Africa are being opened up raided by logging companies who supply the needs and greed of wealthy people from Europe, North America and the Orient.

I took this picture in Cameroon in 1997. The truck was one of six that I saw in a two–hour drive from the coast to our work station when I was involved in an elephant research project with the Wildlife Conservation Society team in the mid-1990s.I have told the full story in The Trouble With Lions: A Glasgow Vet in Africa. Each load was worth about $100,000 to the suppliers. Of course the trees were being felled by men who did the grunt work and needed to eat.

The logging led to habitat loss in several ways. First, and most obvious, was the destruction of many hardwood trees. Second, the damage to the surrounding bush as heavy machinery smashed everything in its path. Third, and least obvious was the curtailment of elephant movement, which has become worse over time as the number of roads has increased and the number of elephants has declined.

The team leader in Cameroon was Buddy Powell who had started to examine how elephants affect their environment and spread trees around when they eat the fruit and then pass the seeds that germinate in another area of the forest.The plant diversity is amazing and when I asked Buddy about numbers he told me that there were likely as many as 300 species of plant in a ten metre radius of where we stood. As the elephant’s range is restricted and their numbers dwindle so the plant diversity will decrease.

Gill only touches on a part of the problem when she writes about the ivory trade. Although she is right when she says that the
“trade - fuelled by civil unrest and organised crime in some central African countries - supports the poaching.”
What she has missed is the other vital element.

In the January to March issues of Swara, the magazine arm of the East African Wildlife Society Dr. Dan Stiles has documented a bigger problem. His title says a lot: First Ivory, now meat: Elephants face second threat to survival. Unfortunately the article does not seem to be on line, but the magazine’s editor does state that the full report will be published this year by IUCN.

What it boils down to is that the loggers need to eat and that is the central problem for all the species that dwell in the forests.

During our walks though the forest I would hear a shotgun blast about once an hour and it was no surprise to see spent shells like this one planted on a bush.

I encountered a roadside bushmeat stall where a variety of species were for sale. They included birds, cane rats, monkeys and duikers.

Karl Amman, the Kenya-based wildlife photographer who permitted me to use some of his pictures in my book The Trouble With Lions has documented the bushmeat trade in startling detail. You can find many more pictures at his website.

Although the bushmeat hunters take anything they can Stiles quotes Amman stating that
“Elephant meat is worth much more than ivory.”

So much so, that this remarkable picture on the BBC site shows a shop somewhere in Africa where ammunition for elephant hunting is graphically advertised on the outside wall.

So, as all species, animal and plant, in the forests of central Africa are hammered, the elephant, which gives the greatest return on investment is taking a big hit.

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