Road-building in Africa's Congo basin could spell catastrophe for the forest elephant.
New research by WCS and Save the Elephants published today in PLoS One shows that encroaching roads create a 'siege mentality' in forest elephants as they avoid roads, associating them with the threat of poaching.
A spurt of road-building in the area driven by increased logging and mining is dramatically decreasing the areas of roadless wilderness in which forest elephants feel safe to roam. Forest elephants have responded to the threat by dramatically shrinking their home ranges into ever-smaller 'virtual prisons' bounded by roads.
'There is a colossal threat to elephants from encroaching roads into the forest and to the entire diversity of life in that habitat' said co-author Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a Research Associate at Oxford's Department of Zoology. He questioned a recent decision by the IUCN to downlist the conservation status of the African elephant from vulnerable to near-threatened.
The researchers, led by Steve Blake of WCS, tracked 28 elephants fitted with GPS collars to discover how roads were affecting their movements. They found that all roads restricted elephant movements with just one collared elephant crossing a road outside a protected area, only doing so at 14 times normal speed.
The worry is that, with areas of roadless wilderness shrinking by up to 89 per cent, the 'imprisoned' elephants will miss out on access to vital food sources and could see them both become more aggressive and give birth to fewer offspring.
The underlying message from the research seems clear: save the wilderness or lose the forest elephant.