Without intervention elephant poaching in the Congo may lead to more devastating effects than the extinction of one of the last megafauna on earth, with researchers predicting widespread implications for biodiversity in the region.
The diminishing forest elephant population in Salonga National Park, a World Heritage listed site since 1999 located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is at the centre of new scientific research which demonstrates many tree species are dependent on elephants for survival.
"Results are dramatic and worrying", according to ecologist David Beaune of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, "Many people don't realise that elephants are considered to be "megagardeners of the forest" because they consume huge amounts of food and disseminate plant seedlings across great distances, as plant matter travel through their digestive systems".
Of 18 tree species tested as part of a recent study, just six appeared to be resilient without elephants. The remaining 12 are considered 'elephant-dependent', meaning there is no alternative partner for seed dispersal.
One tree species at risk is Irvingia, which relies on the elephant for seed dissemination. The flow on effect is that some primate species rely on the fruit of Irvingia as food, including bonobos and chimpanzees.
"As we continue to receive reports on elephant massacres occurring throughout Central Africa and observe further declines in their numbers, the threat for elephant-dependent tree communities also intensifies" said Arend de Haas, director of the African Conservation Foundation, "The known risk of elephant extinction is significant; however the cascade effect on tree species survival and wildlife depending on elephant-dependent trees is even more concerning.
Recruitment and population dynamics take longer to show in trees than in humans and the affects of overhunted elephant forests may not become apparent right away. While elephants begin to disappear from forests, these plant species appear to remain intact in what is referred to as empty forest syndrome.
Despite its World Heritage listing, Salonga National Park is at risk of turning into another 33,346 km2 of empty forest. To change its fate and protect biodiversity in the region the park's declining elephant population must be saved.
Salonga National Park is also threatened by oil concession development and oil exploration by oil companies COMICO (US/NL), Divine Inspiration Group (South Africa) and SOCO International (UK).
Source: David Beaune et al, Doom of the elephant-dependent trees in a Congo tropical forest in Forest Ecology and Management, 295 (2013) 109–117.