EXPERTS from Stirling have led an international study into the impact of climate change and the threat posed to elephants in Gabon.

Dr Emma Bush and Dr Robin Whytock, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling, have worked closely with the government in the Gabonese Republic to study the impact of climate change on Central Africa's rainforests.

The study reveals that a significant reduction in fruit production by trees in the country's Lopé National Park has coincided with a decline in the physical condition of fruit-eating forest elephants.

An 81 per cent decline in fruit production between 1986 and 2018 was observed, alongside an 11 per cent drop in the physical condition of fruit-dependent forest elephants since 2008.

Dr Bush said: “The massive collapse in fruiting among more than 70 tree species studied at Lopé National Park, Gabon, may be due to species missing the environmental cue to bear fruit, because of increased temperatures and less rainfall.

“Less fruit in the ecosystem will have huge impacts on forest dynamics such as seed dispersal, plant reproduction and food availability for wildlife such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas.”

Stirling University has been involved in research in the region for close to four decades.

It established the world-renowned Station d’Etudes des Gorilles et Chimpanzes (SEGC – The Gorilla and Chimpanzee Research Station) with the Centre Internationale de Recherches Médicales de Franceville (CIRMF, The International Medical Research Centre in Franceville) in Lopé National Park, Central Gabon, in 1983.

Dr Whytock added: “Large animals like forest elephants are already under severe pressure in Central Africa due to hunting, habitat loss and habitat degradation.

“If important protected areas like Lopé National Park in Gabon can no longer support them because there is not enough food, then we may see further population declines, jeopardising their survival in the long-term.

“We know that large bodied animals, like elephants, are disproportionately important for the healthy functioning of ecosystems and their loss could result in broad changes to forest systems and even reduce the amount of carbon stored there.”

Other lead contributors to the study included Professors Kate Abernethy and Lee White, Gabon's minister for water, forest, sea and environment – as well as an honorary professor at Stirling.

He said: “Long-term ecological research such as ours is unfortunately extremely rare in the tropics, and it is possible that similar processes are underway, but undetected, throughout the tropical rainforests of our planet.

“It is alarming that climate change may be resulting in forest elephants going hungry and we need to seriously consider whether this is forcing elephants out of the forests to approach rural villages in search of food, resulting in an increase in crop raiding.”