"The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend towards extinction -- potentially within the next decade -- of the forest elephant," said Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society, lead author of a study published in the journal PLoS ONE.
The study between 2002 and 2011 surveyed elephants in five countries -- Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo -- and found almost a third of the land where African forest elephants were able to live 10 years ago has become too dangerous for them, the researchers said.
"Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2 million square kilometers (more than 772,000 square miles), but now cower in just a quarter of that area," study co-author John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation said.
"Although the forest cover remains, it is empty of elephants, demonstrating that this is not a habitat degradation issue. This is almost entirely due to poaching."
The African forest elephant is slightly smaller than its better known relative the African savannah elephant and is considered by many to be a separate species.
"Saving the species requires a coordinated global effort in the countries where elephants occur -- all along the ivory smuggling routes, and at the final destination in the Far East," the study's other lead author Fiona Maisels, also of WCS, said.
"We don't have much time before elephants are gone."