Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Between 78 and 81 percent of forest elephants in one of Central Africa's largest preserves have been lost to poachers, according to a new study by researchers from Duke University.
"Our research suggests that more than 25,000 elephants in Gabon's Minkébé National Park may have been killed for their ivory between 2004 and 2014," John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke, said in a news release. "With nearly half of Central Africa's estimated 100,000 forest elephants thought to live in Gabon, the loss of 25,000 elephants from this key sanctuary is a considerable setback for the preservation of the species."
Researchers used two elephant surveys conducted between 2004 and 2014, which relied on the tracking of dung left behind by the large mammals, to estimate the species' population decline within the park's boundaries.
Their analysis -- detailed in the journal Current Biology -- suggests a significant portion of the poaching pressure orginates in Cameroon, across Gabon's northern border.
"Based on changes in the abundance and geographic distribution of the dung, we identified two fronts of poaching pressure," Poulsen said.
Because of the lack of easily accessed roads in the south of the park, poaching pressures have been somewhat relieved. The central and northern parts of the park are only a few miles from a major road leading from Cameroon into Gabon. The road connects the parklands to Cameroon's largest city, Douala, a regional hub of the illegal ivory trade.
Gabon's government has ramped up its offensive against poaching in recent years, granting forest elephants full protection under the law, establishing an anti-poaching police force and burning all confiscated ivory -- the first African nation to do so.
But, as researchers argue in their latest report, a single nation can only be so effective without help from its neighbors.
"To save Central Africa's forest elephants, we need to create new multinational protected areas and coordinate international law enforcement to ensure the prosecution of foreign nationals who commit or encourage wildlife crimes in other countries," Poulsen said. "Studies showing sharp declines in forest elephant populations are nothing new, but a 78 to 81 percent loss in a single decade from one of the largest, most remote protected areas in Central Africa is a startling warning that no place is safe from poaching."
Poulsen and his colleagues are currently working on a collaring campaign, which began in 2015, to track forest elephants and better understand their behavior and migrational patterns across Central Africa.
"The cool thing about this project is that we are going to have the most collared elephants throughout Central Africa. We are doing this in three different national parks," Poulsen told the Duke Chronicle. "We think that with this big of a sample size we will really be able to figure out what drives elephants and why they move and how big their home range is."