Fires Threaten Africa’s Rainforest. Elephants Might Help To Save It

The reclusive species makes natural firebreaks that can protect one of the world’s largest carbon sinks

Fires Threaten Africa’s Rainforest. Elephants Might Help To Save It
A forest elephant in the Republic of the Congo. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the far reaches of the African rainforest lives a timid creature known as the forest elephant. Camera traps sometimes catch blurs of gray passing by during the night, leaving behind broken branches and trampled grass as they tread familiar paths through the trees, a behavior passed down by those lucky enough to have survived the civil wars that consumed Central Africa and decimated its wildlife at the turn of the century. Park rangers catch sightings of them only fleetingly. Unlike their savanna-dwelling cousins, forest elephants are rarely spotted in nature documentaries, preferring to hide in overgrown thickets rather than proudly presenting themselves out in the grasslands. This makes them harder to find and conserve than many other species. Now, for the first time, scientists are starting to understand how this critically endangered animal insulates the rainforest from man-made fires that burn across Africa every year — protecting one of the earth’s largest natural stores of carbon dioxide (CO2) — as they work to bring the forest elephant back from the brink.

Fires identified by NASA satellites have been mapped on to Africa, showing how fire patterns are changing between wet and dry seasons, shifting down as the weather changes. Researchers call Africa the “fire continent” for its high volume of seasonal fires. Despite more damaging wildfires, Africa is the only continent where fire activity is increasing. (Tom Brown)

Forest elephants have a matriarchal family structure. When they are fully reared, male elephants leave the herd in search of mates, while females stay with their mothers and families until death. The trails that traveling elephants made may have played a vital role in shaping early African ecosystems. Following the footsteps of other elephants in search of fruit, these large animals, which can weigh as much as 12,000 pounds, trample vegetation in a consistent pattern, stamping out a trail leading through the forest over time, almost as though they were building a path leading from fruit tree to fruit tree. Over time, these trails have come to act as natural firebreaks, which can stop the path of a raging wildfire that would otherwise risk entering the Congo Basin and burning down large sections of rainforest.

NASA’s earth science team estimates that the Congo Basin rainforest stores the equivalent of approximately 85 billion tons of CO2, making it the world’s second-largest store of carbon after the Amazon and Africa’s most effective carbon sink. Without the firebreaks that the forest elephants have been providing, there’s a risk that large amounts of CO2 could be released into the atmosphere, which would add to global warming, among other negative effects. As the scientific community learns more about how fires and wildlife conservation are linked, protecting these elephants and helping their populations slowly rebound have become a priority for conservationist groups.

At the American Geophysical Union’s 2023 meeting in San Francisco, Stephen J. Pyne, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and author of the 2021 book “Pyrocene,” took to the stage to recount the history of fire. I listened as he explained how, in the early 20th century, much of the developed world spent decades fighting fires to protect urban expansion and agricultural land. Once fire activity decreased to an all-time low, environments started to degrade, as biodiversity decreased, and forest management officials began to realize the importance of fire for preserving the landscape. Fires play a role in regulating an ecosystem, which is typically balanced between grasses and woody plants. When fire activity decreases, woody plants start to outcompete grasses. Eventually, when a fire does come along, the denser wood plants burn hotter, often making the fires more intense and releasing more carbon in the process. “It turns out it’s a lot harder to put fire back in than it is to take it out,” he concluded.

Devastating blazes in Hawaii, Australia and California have pushed wildfires to the forefront of public anxiety over global warming. But satellite data shows that global burn areas have declined by around 25% over the past 18 years, despite the fact that increased global temperatures lead to warmer, drier conditions that can extend and exacerbate fire seasons. The decrease has been most pronounced in Africa, where savannas and grasslands are being replaced with crops and farmland, which are less prone to wildfires.

But this isn’t good news for such landscapes. While fewer fires might seem beneficial for the climate — fewer burns ostensibly mean less CO2 in the atmosphere — researchers like Timothy Tear, international senior scientist at the Biodiversity Research Institute, worry that in the long run, environments acting as natural stores of carbon, like the rainforest, are increasingly at risk. With fewer grasslands and less fuel for low-intensity fires that often leave trees intact, hotter, more intense fires may burn through woody vegetation and pose a greater risk to the rainforest than before. “If it gets too hot, it kills trees,” said John Poulson, global director at the Nature Conservancy and professor at Duke University. That results in reduced carbon storage. “It’s going to be a bigger problem as tropical forests dry out.”

The delicate interaction between woody plants and grasslands is where forest elephants living in the Central African Republic play a key role in preserving the rainforest, but their numbers are dwindling. “After decades of ruthless poaching, the last remaining forest elephants in Chinko have become phantoms that humans hardly ever see directly,” Thierry Aebischer of African Parks, head of conservation for the Chinko Conservation Area, a nature reserve protecting some of the world’s last remaining forest elephants, told New Lines. “Only individuals that have learned to move inconspicuously, to recognize and avoid people from afar and to hide well from humans, have survived the great massacres in the eastern CAR because of the global ivory trade.”

Forest elephants have been poached to near-extinction in Central Africa, where militias fighting in the Congo would often turn to ivory as a source of revenue. As grasslands in the north of Africa vanish, forest elephants are now increasingly under threat from wildfires too. Every year, livestock herders move south in search of feed for their cattle, starting fires as they travel to rejuvenate the grassland and replenish food supplies. The fires have spread to the point that they are now threatening the edge of the Chinko reserve, where a small community of forest elephants are living. Aebischer, a Swiss biologist who first arrived in Chinko as a doctoral student from the University of Fribourg, and was part of the team that founded the Chinko project in 2014, told me that “African Parks is trying to keep the tropical woodland savannas and moist dense forests as large and connected as possible.” Part of that goal includes restoring large wildlife populations so that elephants themselves can create firebreaks between savanna and forest.

Surviving populations of forest elephants are shown in blue, while fires are highlighted in red, orange and yellow, color coded by temperature, with yellow being the hottest. Forest elephants play a key role in preventing fires from entering highly biodiverse rainforests, helping to insulate these environments from damaging seasonal fires. Most live in Gabon but small groups remain in CAR. (Tom Brown)

While the elephants’ firebreaks are effective against seasonal fires, their populations have not recovered enough to prevent the more intense wildfires, many of which are started by the herders. Aebischer and his team have begun using NASA’s satellite data to track fires across Africa, as a means of protecting the wildlife in the natural park, identifying herders coming down from the Sahel by spotting fires that stand out from the seasonal pattern.

As the Fulani herder groups head southward, they burn the dry grass to rejuvenate the landscape and kill pests, like snakes, that might attack their cattle. Sometimes, entire villages are on the move. These herder groups often shoulder the blame not only for such fires, but also for illegal poaching of wildlife in parks, much of it for bushmeat. But the International Crisis Group says they are not always the main perpetrators. Militia groups have been spilling down from Sudan, where two generals have torn the country apart in a civil war that has devastated the population and landscape. The militiamen offer the herders medicine for their livestock in exchange for using their travel routes that lead into Central Africa, shadowing the herders and killing any wildlife they encounter to sell as bushmeat. “They kill anything that moves,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “I’ve come across these camps, there is skin stretched everywhere. They are hanging up turtles to buffaloes to elephants. That meat is dried and often carted off to Khartoum.”

Chinko conservationists and staff have tried sitting down with the herders to resolve the issue, but as pastures wither and trade with Khartoum becomes more difficult, Aebischer is worried the herders might spend more and more time in Chinko in an effort to protect their cattle from civil wars and opportunistic thieves, creating semipermanent settlements in the nature reserve. “I lived in Chad until I was 26. But our forest is completely destroyed now, we don’t know why. Our cows die. So, we come now to Central Africa to rest,” said chief Aladji Oumar in an interview with African Parks, representing a group of pastoralist herders that has been trying to avoid any conflict. “The only problem here are the Seleka [a CAR militia group]. They come to our camp asking for cows.”

The CAR government is aware of the problem, but the country is also plagued by civil war and ethnic strife, as Muslim and Christian groups fight one another and Russia’s Wagner Group solidifies its foothold in the country. With the situation growing worse, Aebischer said Chinko decided to start controlled burns to limit the fires, working with the CAR Department of Conservation and Operation to drop incendiary devices from helicopters. The controlled burns are having an effect, with the satellite data showing fewer fires in the Chinko reserve after the operation went ahead, but it’s not clear if it will be enough.

In the 2000s, a Swede named Erik Mararv set up a hunting concession called Central African Wildlife Adventures on the land that now hosts the Chinko reserve, and later hired a British manager, David Simpson. They ran into trouble when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) paid a visit to the area. The militia group, known for its poaching activities and use of child soldiers, is led by Joseph Kony, a warlord made infamous by a 2012 documentary. That same year, as the world was first learning of the militant Christian group, Kony’s forces were executing miners round the concession, and a rumor started in surrounding settlements that Mararv and Simpson were responsible for the killings. Both ended up in a CAR prison awaiting trial. It later emerged that wealthy elites in the CAR with ties to the ivory market had grown angry at the tourists’ hunting cutting their market share, according to author and writer Elliott Woods, who traveled to the nature reserve and documented its early struggles with pastoralists in 2016. The ivory traders tried to pin the LRA’s murders on Simpson and Mararv, in an alleged attempt to destroy their business. Yet while they were in prison, the men had the idea of creating a conservation area, and in 2014 the Chinko nature reserve joined African Parks, a nongovernmental organization run out of Johannesburg. The NGO has expanded its presence across Africa, with prominent environmentalists, including Britain’s Prince Harry, on their board — a testament to the group’s success in gaining international recognition and acquiring foreign capital.

The CAR has some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Former employees of African Parks praised the project, claiming that without Chinko, many of its animals would most likely have been killed and sold as bushmeat. Through its fire management program, Chinko’s team is mimicking the natural behaviors of the species under their care, taking on the role that the elephants under their protection once had when their populations were larger, with the hope that eventually forest elephant populations will recover to the point that firebreaks can act as effective barriers without the help from the park rangers.

The Chinko Nature Reserve in the Central African Republic is shown left, before its prescribed burning program, and right, after the program. While the wildfires are not progressing as far into the nature reserve, some are still making their way through to threaten the wildlife. (Tom Brown)

In tracking the forest elephant population more closely as it declined from 2003 onward, researchers made a discovery: They found that forest elephants helped the spread of carbon-dense trees. Many fruiting trees, which tend to have a greater ability to store carbon than nonfruiting trees, rely entirely on elephants to disperse their seeds through their dung. Seeds that have been softened by an elephant’s stomach acids germinate at faster rates than uneaten seeds. The elephants also spread trees of the same species further apart when on their travels — often walking 15 miles in a day, preventing diseases and infestations from easily spreading through the forest.

Researchers who measured tree populations in 2013 found that many species of trees in their area had stopped self-replenishing, suggesting that when elephant populations dropped, the carbon storage potential of the rainforest also went down. It is not just elephants that rely on fruiting trees for food. Species of bats, birds and many insects are also dying out, creating a vicious cycle of fewer species and less food sources like these trees, which themselves rely on the species that both eat and propagate them. In an ecosystem as tightly intertwined as the Congo Basin, the removal of one species can cause the collapse of an entire habitat.

Existing research suggests that without a protected population of forest elephants to guard the rainforest, the risk that the world could lose one of its largest natural stores of carbon grows larger. Wars in Central Africa have ravaged the population of forest elephants, 65% of whom have been slaughtered for their ivory.

“At one stage there were thought to be in the tens of thousands living in the eastern Central African Republic,” but around 10 years ago, that number dipped as low as 20, said Chris Thouless, director of the Elephant Crisis Fund, a joint initiative of Save the Elephants and the Wildlife Conservation Network, headquartered in San Francisco and initially launched with funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, now known as Re:wild. According to the Elephant Crisis Fund, as of 2023 approximately 140,000 forest elephants remain in the entire Congo Basin, which stretches across nine countries and 300 million hectares of land.

African civil conflicts in the 21st century are far from the first time elephants have suffered at the hands of warring parties. The ivory trade has often risen and fallen alongside global trade. By the 11th century, almost all ivory arriving in Europe came from Greenland, not from Africa. Traders from Norway and Iceland took to hunting walruses and narwhals and selling their tusks back home as luxury products. By the mid-1400s, when Portuguese sailors were venturing further into Africa, the larger elephant tusks began to outsell walrus ivory, contributing to the disappearance of the Greenland Viking settlements. Demand for ivory would destabilize societies in Central Africa for the next several centuries. After decolonization, as civil wars engulfed the continent, the ivory trade exploded. As zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton wrote in “Battle for the Elephants,” if the bodies had been human, what happened in the 1970s to Africa’s elephants would have been called a genocide. Up to 50% of all elephant tusks in this period ended up in Japan, with elephant tusks turned into personalized stamps as the country’s economy soared and administrative jobs expanded. China also became an ivory hub, with most elephant tusks making a stop in Hong Kong for carving before they were shipped to the mainland or overseas. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the trade in Asian elephant ivory in 1975, but it took decades for laws protecting African elephants to catch up, and efforts by CITES to ban the trade worldwide were riddled with “laundering-friendly loopholes,” according to Rachel Love Nuwer’s 2018 book “Poached.” The black market thrived until 1989, when a majority of nations signed up to give elephants Appendix I protection under CITES, banning the ivory trade.

In 2017, poaching levels dropped to lows not seen in decades after Chinese President Xi Jinping dismantled his country’s domestic ivory market and banned imports. But despite the overseas ban, demand for ivory still ebbs and flows alongside the performance of the Chinese economy, with the country by far the largest import market for illegal wildlife. In 2007, when the International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted a survey in China, 70% of respondents said they thought tusks fell harmlessly out of elephants’ mouths, like a child losing a tooth — perhaps because the Mandarin word for “tusk” literally translates as “elephant tooth.” When respondents were informed that tusks cannot be removed without maiming and usually killing the elephant, however, 80% said they would not buy any ivory products. NGOs and law enforcement have had some success in stamping out the criminal syndicates that maintain the illegal trade. A Tanzanian court sentenced Yang Fenglan, dubbed the “Ivory Queen,” to 15 years in jail in 2019 after finding her guilty of running Africa’s largest ivory-smuggling operation, trafficking $2.5 million worth of tusks from approximately 400 elephants. But poachers still remain active.

Forest elephants, of all elephant species, have suffered most egregiously for their ivory. Those living in Central Africa are the last survivors of generations of war, with the largest community currently living in Gabon. Observing how militia gangs funded themselves through ivory sales in other countries, the Gabonese government has been bolstering the country’s national parks to cut off funding for militia groups, even setting up a scheme to receive payments for reducing carbon emissions by protecting its rainforest. Norway, through the U.N.-backed Central African Forest Initiative, has paid Gabon $17 million based on the carbon that would have been released without its efforts to preserve the rainforest. The rest of the $150 million program is being rolled out over the next few years. The result is that Gabon hosts the world’s fastest-growing forest elephant population, with conservation efforts bringing in revenue, despite the country having only 12% of Africa’s rainforest.

Boosting tourism through conservation is not the only source of revenue for Central African governments. At COP28 last year, while the United Arab Emirates was hosting the world’s largest conference on climate change, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum — a member of the Dubai royal family and head of climate firm Blue Carbon — was helping African nations create what is set to be one of the world’s largest carbon offset programs. The Congo rainforest sequesters an average of $30 billion worth of carbon yearly, according to a report published by the Center for Global Development in 2021, an amount higher than the nominal GDP of 35 African nations, including four of the countries whose borders intersect with the rainforest. “Wildlife stays if wildlife pays,” has become the motto of many African environmental programs. Conservationists are moving toward a model of providing economic incentives to help local communities replenish endangered species populations.

Since 2017, Chinko hasn’t recorded any new poaching incidents. The last time Thouless visited the park, he told New Lines, camera footage suggested that the forest elephants had become more relaxed following the implementation of the controlled burning program, feeling comfortable enough to spend more time out in the open than before. But the controlled fires project could be the start of something bigger. Conservationists in Australia, under the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, have succeeded in shifting some of the country’s fires toward the early dry season, when fires are smaller and release fewer emissions. The fire managers achieved a mean annual emissions reduction of 37.7% — more than 100,00 metric tons of CO2, approximately equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Belgium, according to World Bank figures — with additional studies suggesting the program could be replicated in Africa with the help of the U.N.’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. Savannas currently make up 62% of all fire activity on the planet, making Africa a key location for fire mitigation. Changing Africa’s fire regime so that fires occur in the early dry season, instead of the late dry season, could theoretically reduce the total emissions from savanna fires by 48%, according to a study published in Nature.

In Australia, Indigenous communities have received funding for their role in managing fire regimes to reduce emissions, and such initiatives represent a potential blueprint for Chinko. In both communities, nomadic peoples have helped manage fire regimes for hundreds of years, storing knowledge passed down through generations of pastoral living. But without alternative sources of income, the herders rely on fattening cattle — often owned by wealthy elites — to survive. With a viable economic alternative, many might be incentivized to protect the Chinko reserve instead of threatening its natural habitat and the forest elephants inside.

Ongoing research is revealing how megafauna, fires and humanity have evolved alongside one another, shaping the global ecosystem. The world’s population of forest elephants is slowly recovering, individual by individual, as conservation efforts increase. As it does, excitement is building over conservation projects that combine rewilding with carbon sequestration. Chinko, standing in the area where grassland becomes rainforest, represents a transitional world between tropics and desert that has existed in Africa for centuries. That world’s remaining natural gardeners are still treading the routes of the ancient elephants that protected the rainforest thousands of years ago. Without them, it will be left to us to tend the garden alone.

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