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Forest elephants and whitetip sharks: PLOS ONE papers at CITES

Human activities and consumption pose constant threats to the environment and to wildlife but the scale of these threats can be hard to quantify. Accurate research to assess the status of threatened species is an essential first step to changing policies and human behavior that can ensure the survival of these species and habitats. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was organized to limit exploitation of international trade of wild animals and plants. Their latest meeting is currently underway in Bangkok, Thailand and two PLOS ONE papers provided evidence to support the enhanced protection of two threatened species – African forest elephants and oceanic whitetip sharks. These species were highlighted as facing intensified pressures that threaten their existence, calling for heightened regulations and  better enforcement of these regulations to prevent their extinction.

One of these recently published papers provided data on declining populations of African forest elephants. By surveying the forests of five East African countries primarily by foot, researchers were able to estimate that African forest elephant populations have declined by a devastating 62% between 2002 and 2011. The drivers of this decline are complex but hinge on a renewed international demand for ivory, especially sought after among China’s growing middle class. The study was covered by NPR, the New York Times and TIME magazine.

Another study tracked the movements of the severely threatened oceanic whitetip shark. Protecting sharks from overfishing poses a complex challenge as demand for shark fin and other products rises. To shed some light on just how far this species travels, researchers tagged 11 oceanic whitetip sharks and tracked their movements over 1,563 days. The tagged sharks spent the majority of their time in the protected waters of the Bahamas Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where longlining and commercial trade of sharks is illegal. But the sharks ventured up to 1200 miles outside of this protected zone the rest of the time(see Figure 2 on the right). The tendency of these sharks to roam far and wide into these unprotected waters demonstrates the need for international cooperation if the species are to be protected. The study was covered by the BBC, NBC and Scientific American.

Continued research to quantify the threat facing these species and others is necessary to bolster support for regulations to be enacted and enforced internationally by bodies like CITES. Be sure to check out PLOS ONE for more research on conservation efforts for sharks and the plight of elephants.


Citations: Maisels F, Strindberg S, Blake S, Wittemyer G, Hart J, et al. (2013) Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59469. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059469

Howey-Jordan LA, Brooks EJ, Abercrombie DL, Jordan LKB, Brooks A, et al. (2013) Complex Movements, Philopatry and Expanded Depth Range of a Severely Threatened Pelagic Shark, the Oceanic Whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus) in the Western North Atlantic. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056588

Images: Shark photo credit: Lance Jordan, Microwave Telemetry, Inc.

Elephant photo copyright: Fiona Maisels of Wildlife Conservation Society.

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