Carnage for forest elephants

In 2001 genetic analyses confirmed what researchers in Africa had long suspected: the forest elephant is a unique species, distinct from its larger cousin, the African savanna elephant. 

That knowledge makes the current devastation of forest elephants--which live in the shrinking rainforests of Central and West Africa--all the more alarming.  In just the last decade, two-thirds of all forest elephants have been wiped out.  These animals are victims of growing human populations, the rapid proliferation of roads in African forests, and especially the burgeoning global trade in illegal ivory.

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

The only encouraging aspect of this story is growing awareness of the problem.  China is finally acknowledging and beginning to address its huge role as a consumer of illegal ivory (see our blog below) and other governments are also taking action.  For instance, the Obama administration just announced a series of anti-wildlife-crime measures, including a crackdown on illegal ivory.

For the beleaguered forest elephant, such actions are not coming a moment too soon...

China acknowledges role in global elephant slaughter

The last few years have been devastating for elephants, with a global slaughter being fueled by a burgeoning demand for ivory. China, which accounts for much of this demand, is finally beginning to acknowledge its role and take steps to limit trade in ivory products.

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

In this week's issue of Science, Shiyang Huang and Qiang Weng highlight the burgeoning trade in illegal ivory in China, and detail the government's efforts to combat this black market

The good news is that, despite their belated response, Chinese authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously--recently confiscating and destroying 6 tonnes of ivory. In China, a decisive government action like this could potentially send a strong signal to illegal traders that the days of open trade in 'blood ivory' are coming to an end.

These are just the first steps, as the demand for ivory in China is huge.  Let's hope the Chinese government continues to show leadership on this high-profile international issue. 

Agriculture will massively impact the tropics

In a review article that has just appeared in the leading journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, I teamed up with Jeff Sayer and Ken Cassman to assess the impacts of agriculture this century on tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  It's quite a sweeping review with many important conclusions.

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Among the biggest concerns are:

- Prospects for dramatic expansion of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America

- Great uncertainty in the amount of land that will be converted to agriculture, in order to meet growing global food demands

-The prospects that biofuel production could also impact greatly on native ecosystems and also compete with agriculture

- The likelihood of massive environmental impacts on freshwater ecosystems and water supplies

- Profound challenges ahead in producing enough food to feed the world

Those who wish to have a PDF of the paper can email me directly (bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au).

-Bill Laurance

Forests reduce flooding

A longstanding debate in hydrological science is the degree to which forests actually limit downstream flooding.  Now a mega-study in Panama provides the strongest direct evidence to date that forests do indeed soak-up massive amounts of rainfall and then release it gradually over time.

Destructive floods cause billions of dollars of damage and likely kill thousands of people each year.  An earlier, global-scale statistical analysis suggested forests do indeed limit flooding and now the Panama experiment seems to seal the case.

The message is clear: retain forests to reduce floods

A torrent in the central Amazon

A torrent in the central Amazon