Meet discuss Africa's elephants

By Henry Neondo

An agreement aimed at boosting the fortunes of African forgotten elephants took centre stage at an international wildlife meeting at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi.

Twelve countries in West Africa, home to the regions last remaining populations of elephants, are signing a treaty under the UNEP-linked Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

The agreement and its associated Strategy or action plan sets targets and timetables for improving elephant habitats, boosting the numbers of fragile populations, the setting up of wildlife corridors and a raft of other measures covering cross border cooperation.

Many of West Africa’s last elephant populations are held in protected areas but many of the staff there are without the means to patrol and enforce conservation laws.

The strategy calls for staff to be given better equipment and training to boost morale and the impact of their work.

Experts believe urgent, wide-ranging, action is needed because of the perilous state of many of the region’s elephant populations.

Numbers have been devastated by factors such as the 19th century ivory trade following the arrival of European colonial powers and the construction inland of roads and railways.

In the 20th century pressures from ivory poaching have been joined by those such as logging and clearance of habitat for agriculture, expansion of urban settlements and civil wars.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: In 2002 nations agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to reverse the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. West Africa’s elephants could, under this agreement, become living proof that the global community can indeed achieve these ambitious aims for animals and plants planet-wide.

This is not just a conservation agreement for elephants. By improving their habitats and conserving the region’s ecosystems, this agreement can boost the fortunes and prospects for local people who rely on nature for their livelihoods. It should also help conserve a myriad of other threatened and endangered species, and the forest and savannah homes in which the live, said IUCN Director General, Achim Steiner.

The initiative for increased cooperative action on behalf of West
Africa’s elephants began in 1998 under the auspices of the IUCN Species Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group (AESG).

Through this process, the AESG worked with the 13 Range States of the region to develop a strategic framework for the conservation and management of elephants in West Africa. This strategy has gone on to be adopted as the action plan, which accompanies this MoU.

Leo Niskanen, Senior Programme Officer for IUCN Species Survival
Commission’s African Elephant Specialist Group in Nairobi, said:
Many elephant populations in West Africa are small, highly fragmented and vulnerable to a range of pressures including habitat loss and poaching.

We hope this new agreement, focusing as it does on closer cross
border, collaboration in elephant conservation will galvanize further political support and catalyze even more action on the ground to conserve and protect the remaining West African elephant populations, he said.

Historically, it has been the bigger populations of elephants in East and Southern Africa that have attracted most attention. Elephants there have, over many decades, become the focus of a vibrant tourist industry with the potential to benefit countries and communities alike.

Lamine Sebogo, the African Elephant Specialist Group’s Programme
Officer for West Africa, said the new agreement could by raising awareness help trigger similar interest and benefits in West Africa.

I hope this new agreement will raise the profile of elephants in the
West African region so that they attract more tourists to the countries concerned. This in turn will give local and poor people a real economic inventive to conserve them for current and future generations, he added.

Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of CMS, said: Signing this agreement is only the first step. We now need to raise substantial resources to assist the countries concerned and the partners involved to implement this ambitious project on the ground.

UNEP/CMS has already spent $50,000 in preparing the agreement and assisting the West African elephant range states and a further $12,500 is to be made available to IUCN: The World Conservation Union to help support their technical and coordination work for the new agreement.

It is hoped this week’s conference of the CMS will agree to a further $50,000 for IUCN.

This is difficult for a modest Convention like the CMS. We now look to donor states and agencies, as well as range states and the CMS partner organizations to urgently triple this support to $300,000 and hope this can be secured by the end of this conference, added Mr Hepworth.

The West African Elephant Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)
Some scientists suspect that the West African population of elephants, living mainly in tropical forests and savannahs, may be a separate species from the Central, Eastern and Southern populations.

The precise number of West African elephants is unknown but it is estimated that there are ˜definitely around 5,000 animals. The true number could be over 13,000. The largest remaining populations are in Burkina Faso and Benin.

However, reliable statistics exist only for only 26 per cent of the
West African elephants range with over 50 per cent subject to guesswork.

The strategy accompanying today’s agreement will help coordinate scientific activities across the elephants’ migratory range. It calls for more effective action to monitor and collect improved data on numbers and trends in population sizes with a target of surveying all populations of more than 100 by 2010 and those of more than 50 by 2015.

In many countries populations are now lower than a 100 animals making it unlikely that they can survive the next 100 years without swift and far reaching action.

Small populations are more vulnerable to extinction as a result of drought, disease and outbreaks of poaching that remove breeding males.

Under the new agreement initial priority will be given to conserving the region’s larger remaining populations of which there are currently
The plan calls for a stabilization or improvement of the ˜condition of habitat/range of all populations of more than 100 within seven years.

However there are provisions for even the small populations with the aim of stabilizing and improving their habitats within 10 years.

Other measures in the strategy, which builds on existing national initiatives by countries in the region include a ban on logging in protected areas and measures to reduce farming, mining and hunting in parks.

Meanwhile there are plans for compensation for crop damage by elephants and the setting up of trained, rapid-response, teams to deal with problem elephants in order to reduce animal and human conflicts.

Provisions for boosting the morale of game guards and wildlife officers include providing scholarships enabling them to get university degrees in wildlife management, establishing better intelligence networks to combat poaching up to incentives for making arrests, better promotion prospects and the provision for better field equipment at sites with more than 100 elephants.

Wildlife corridors between the countries concerned are also part of the deal aimed at helping elephants to more successfully migrate between different countries.

Plans are already underway for wildlife corridors between Ghana and
Burkina Faso and Mali and Burkina Faso and it is hoped the agreement will trigger the development of many more in the region.

Experts consider such corridors are vital if the elephants there are to survive. These routes allow fragmented populations to find food and watering holes as well as to “mix genetically.


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