Roads bring death and fear to forest elephants

Oct 28, 2008

Why did the elephant cross the road? It didn't according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants that says endangered forest elephants are avoiding roadways at all costs. The authors of the study believe that these highly intelligent animals now associate roads with danger – in this case poaching, which is rampant in Central Africa's Congo Basin.

According to the study, which appears in the October 27th issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoSONE), forest elephants have adopted a "siege mentality," forcing populations to become increasingly confined and isolated. This in turn reduces these normally far-ranging animals' ability to find suitable habitat; thereby threatening long-term conservation efforts.

The study, which tracked 28 forest elephants with GPS collars, discovered that roads, particularly those outside of parks and protected areas, attract poachers and therefore have become formidable barriers to elephant movements. In fact, only one of the collared elephants crossed a road outside of a protected area and it did so at 14 times its normal speed.

The authors found that even in the largest remaining wilderness areas in Central Africa, forest elephants showed adverse reactions to roads, and that truly unconfined forest elephants traveling unfettered over wide landscapes may no longer exist anywhere in Central Africa. The results spell bad news for these endangered pachyderms, since a boom in road-building is currently underway throughout much of the region.

"Forest elephants are basically living in fear of their lives in prisons created by roads. They are roaming around the woods like frightened mice rather than tranquil formidable giants of their forest realm," said Dr. Stephen Blake, the study's lead author. "Forest elephants are under siege with all of the graphic images that go with it – increasing the likelihood of fear, starvation, disease, massive stress, infighting, and social disruption."

The siege strategy may reduce the risk from poaching, but as roadless space decreases, it will likely result in loss of access to food and important mineral deposits. This will most likely result in aggressive negative behavior among elephants from different social groups, which in turn can affect reproductive success. Other negative impacts include overgrazing of local vegetation and reduced seed dispersal by elephants, which is vital to helping regenerate forests.

The WCS scientists who worked on the study include: Stephen Blake (who now works for the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology), Samantha Strindberg, Fiona Maisels, William Karesh, and Michael Kock. Other authors include Sharon Deem from the WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo and University of Missouri, Ludovic Momont from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Inogwabini-Bila Isia from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants.

The authors report that since the data were collected, new road construction has already resulted in enormous losses of roadless wilderness areas in three of their six study sites in Republic of Congo and neighboring Gabon. Other multi-billion dollar development projects loom that include massive road development. However, the authors say there is still time to plan for wise development that includes diverting roads away from wilderness areas, and reducing poaching of elephants.

"A small yet very feasible shift in development planning, one that is actually good for poor local forest people and for wildlife and wilderness, would be a tremendous help to protect forest elephants and their home," said Blake. "Planning roads to give forest elephants breathing space so that at least those in the deep forest can relax, as well as reduce the death and fear that comes with roads by reducing poaching, would be trivial in terms of cost but massively important for conservation."

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

Explore further: Aggressive conifer removal benefits Sierra aspen

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The Isthmus of Panama: Out of the Deep Earth

Apr 01, 2014

As dates in geologic history go, the formation of the slender land bridge that joins South America and North America is a red-letter one. More than once over the past 100 million years, the two great landmasses ...

The Himalayas' amazing biodiversity

Oct 04, 2013

Kamal Bawa's journey to understand and protect the biodiversity of the towering Himalayas began half a century ago, when he was young and traveling into the fabled mountain range's eastern foothills.

Recommended for you

Evolution: The genetic connivances of digits and genitals

4 hours ago

During the development of mammals, the growth and organization of digits are orchestrated by Hox genes, which are activated very early in precise regions of the embryo. These "architect genes" are themselves regulated by ...

Study: Volunteering can help save wildlife

4 hours ago

Participation of non-scientists as volunteers in conservation can play a significant role in saving wildlife, finds a new scientific research led by Duke University, USA, in collaboration with Wildlife Conservation ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.