It's no secret that elephants continue to be threatened by the illegal ivory trade - an industry fueled by wealthy investors and a growing number of poachers looking to strike it rich. However, some conservationists have long contended that protecting healthy populations could help mitigate losses caused by frequently poached groups. Now, a new review is condemning this little-known strategy, claiming that it could doom an entire species of African elephant to extinction.
But wait... how exactly could ignoring one group of elephants help global populations as a whole? The sad reality is that despite international efforts and the support of superstars like basketball's Yao Ming, African elephants are still slowly sliding towards extinction. Shrinking habitats and poaching, of course, continue to prevent their dwindling populations from recovering.
There just isn't enough money for animal protection to go around, and the difficult-to-manage ranges of African elephants remain largely short-staffed. That's why conservation groups have to pick and choose where their money goes. More often than not, that means aiming for the safe choice for one species - a region that has already seen some success and high chance of recovery.
However, that also means many of the worst areas remain unattended, with conservationists simply hoping that gains made in attended parts of the world will help mitigate the inevitable losses. (Scroll to read on...)
"Although elephant populations may at present be declining in parts of their range, major populations in Eastern and Southern Africa, accounting for over two thirds of all known [African] elephants on the continent, have been surveyed, and are currently increasing at an average annual rate of 4.0% per annum... If current rates of increase continue, the number of elephants born in these populations between 2005 and 2010 will be larger than the currently estimated total number of elephants in Central and West Africa combined. In other words, the magnitude of ongoing increases in Southern and Eastern Africa are likely to outweigh the magnitude of any likely declines in the other two regions," the IUCN Red List reports concerning the "vulnerable" Loxodonta africana.
However, not everyone thinks this is good news. Alfred Roca, a member of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, argues that many conservation groups are overlooking a very important fact: the African elephants recovering in southeastern Africa are very different than the pachyderms found in Central Africa.
"They are not recognizing the forest elephant as a separate species despite all the research that has definitively established this," Roca said in a recent statement. (Scroll to read on...)
Roca points to 15 years of genetic and morphological (physical) studies that have confirmed that there are two species of African elephants, dozens of which are cited in a new literature review.
"The two African elephants diverged about six million years ago," he explained, adding that current African elephant conservation strategies are "like saying, 'We increased the lion population, which will more than make up for the fact that tigers are going extinct.'"
"By not recognizing two species, these organizations may be condemning the African forest elephant to extinction," Roca concluded.
"The species are not shown as separate entities on the official United States List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife or on the appendices to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)," added Ronald Nowak, author of Walker's Mammals of the World.
He expressed his agreement with Roca and the researcher's colleagues that the species should be treated as a separate conservation target, explaining that the next edition of his natural world guide will include a clear distinction between African forest (Central) and savannah (south, east) elephants.
In fact, the species are so distinct that forensic analysis of poached ivory can even tell which kind of African elephant each plundered tusk came from.
Still, "until China and other countries do something to crack down on the ivory trade," Roca said, "all the forensics in the world aren't going to stop elephants from being poached."
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