An international team of researchers looking after elephants in Gabon
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Following a 30-year research project, scientists Robin Whytock and Emma Bush from the University of Stirling have revealed a serious deterioration in the living conditions of elephants in Gabon. The diet of these elephants consists mainly of fruit but the steady decline in its production due to climate change is visibly impacting their physical condition.
Climate change is visibly impacting elephants in Central Africa
The tropical forest in Lopé National Park has revealed some of its secrets to the researchers but the privilege of being able to tangibly experience the mysteries of nature has to be earned! Robin Whytock and Emma Bush have spent together almost 20 years studying the area, Robin contributing with his expertise in animals and Emma, with her in-depth knowledge of plants. Their symbiotic work has helped them to reveal an important and alarming phenomenon: climate change has led to a significant decrease in the availability of fruit, thereby affecting the physical condition of forest elephants. “Over 50% of them live in Gabon. They evolve in a humid tropical forest, the weather pattern of which has been radically altered by climate change. Whereas the dry season used to occur in June and July, it is now almost permanent! Between 1986 and 2018, we measured an 80% decline in fruit production, which means that forest elephants now need to search 50 trees before finding ripe fruit, whereas in the 1980s, they would have encountered it on one in every 10 trees”, laments Emma Bush. An immediate consequence of this reduced fruiting is a deterioration in the physical condition of the elephants, with their body mass decreasing by 11% on average between 2008 and 2019. “We are probably witnessing the beginning of the extinction of forest elephants in Africa. It is tragic, particularly when you realize what an important part these animals play in regulating the climate. Their presence in these forests changes their typology: the trees have denser wood, therefore capturing more CO2”, adds Robin Whytock.
We are probably witnessing the beginning of the extinction of forest elephants in Africa.
A unique international research project
It has taken 37 years of observation by the teams working on the project to reveal these facts. Emma and Robin started this research whilst working towards their doctorates at the University of Stirling in Scotland. These young experts are only too aware of how fortunate they are to have been able to work on an international project of this scale. “Researchers generally complain they don’t have enough data. We, on the other hand, have been able to gather and process a huge amount of information for this study”, Emma says. She salutes the outstanding work carried out by the Lopé National Park’s field teams, who visit and inspect over 70 species of trees every month with unfailing regularity. “Itis truly unique to have such regular data covering such a long period! The only thing that can disrupt this well-oiled mechanism is if an elephant itself is in a researcher’s way”, jokes Emma. On his side, Robin used camera trap technology to observe the elephants. “We positioned 200 cameras in trees. They were triggered when animals moved past. New technologies have helped us to reinforce the depth and validity of our discoveries”, he explains. The two researchers also emphasize the extremely effective collaboration between the various entities involved in the project: the University of Stirling, the Gabonese National Parks Agency, the Gabonese Ministry of Water, Forests, Oceans and Environment, the Research Institute for Tropical Ecology in Gabon and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh have each contributed their expertise and support. “We’ve been assisted locally by a group of senior researchers and an exceptional field team”, enthuses Emma. “Obtaining long-term funding is a challenge in itself, so the financial support that Total Gabon has provided throughout the project through its partnership with the CIRMF (Franceville International Medical Research Center) and ANPN has been a decisive factor”, adds Robin.
It is truly unique to have such regular data covering such a long period!
The interest that has accompanied the publication of their study in the prestigious magazine Science in no way marks the end of their work, in fact quite the opposite! Spurred on by the scale of their discovery, they are meticulously continuing to gather and analyze data. There are very few ways of limiting the damage being caused by climate change to the living conditions of the Gabonese elephants... Some researchers are talking about the possibility of introducing assisted feeding. Robin sees this as an impractical solution and thinks there still is a glimmer of hope because, according to him, “elephants always find ways of adapting”.
80% decrease in fruit production between 1986 and 2018
11% loss of body mass among elephants in the Lopé National Park between 2008 and 2019
50% of the world’s forest elephants live in Gabon
Read the full study:
Elephants, a symbol menaced to disappear from Africa’s megafauna
Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world. African elephants, which can weigh up to six metric tons, are larger than their Asian cousins. Whilst it was estimated in the 1970s that there were one million savanna elephants, it is believed that number has dropped to under 500,000 today, and that there are now only 9,500 forest elephants. According to a 2016 study1, Central Africa’s elephant population plummeted by 60% between 2002 and 2011, a trend that has since continued at the rate of 9% per year. Poaching and habitat loss have been largely responsible for this decline so far, but the picture looks even more gloomy now, given the effect of climate change on the availability of the fruit that forms the basic diet of forest elephants.