These news flashes are provided by 'Save The Elephants' Elephant News Service. This service is the result of the hard work of Melissa Groo, a member of ELP's extended family, who assembles the list for Save The Elephants. Here we have selected recent items relevant to forest elephants. All articles are archived at the Elephant News Service where you can also sign up for the service.

  1. "Interview - China consumerism latest threat to Africa's elephants - report, August 29, 2011"

    Tom Kirkwood, August 29, 2011. (get article)
    China's fast-growing consumerism and lax policing of ivory laws are the latest threats to wild elephant populations, said an author of a recent report on endangered species. Poaching of elephants and other species has increased in Central African countries, with products headed mainly to Asian markets and for the bush meat trade.

    Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, authors of the report that was presented at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva in mid-August, visited ivory carving factories and stores in southern China in January. They compared the data with that which they had collated in previous visits going back to 1985. Despite rigorous laws controlling the sale of ivory in China, the industry was booming and much of it appeared to be unregulated, they found. "Chinese authorities produced in 2004 a system where every piece of ivory must have an identification card ... What we found in southern China was that 63 percent of at least 6,500 ivory pieces being sold did not have the appropriate identification card and thus was illegal," Martin said at his home in Nairobi last week.

    The imposition of controls over ivory sales won China CITES approval to buy and sell ivory from legal stocks and in 2008 China imported 62 tonnes of elephant ivory from CITES-approved auctions in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. But of 80 outlets that Martin and Vigne visited, only eight had compulsory ivory identification cards on display. "Perhaps two-thirds of all ivory being sold in southern China today is illegal because it doesn't have proper identification," said Martin, who monitors the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn around the world.

    Fuelling the illegal trade in ivory, according to Martin, is a growing demand from China's consumer class. "When I first went to China in 1985, 99 percent of the ivory being sold was being sold to foreigners. Now, by far the majority of the ivory being sold in southern China is being bought by Chinese because the Chinese like ivory and they are now wealthy enough to purchase it," he said.
    Martin said he was concerned by the way unregulated demand in China has led to rising prices for ivory and fuelled poaching of elephant herds in Africa. "Its about $750 a kilo now, compared with maybe $300-$400 a few years ago and this puts added pressure, added incentive by the poachers and traders in Africa to go after elephants."

    It is not just elephants that are being killed. "People are being killed in the field trying to kill elephants, government officers are being killed as well by poachers, this trade is encouraging massive corruption in Africa and people are being bribed and removed in order to get the stuff out of the continent and over to China," Martin said.

    A CITES report released in Geneva last week said the highest levels of elephant poaching since 2002 were recorded in 2010, with central Africa of most concern. CITES officials announced the creation of a $100 million fund to enhance law enforcement and secure the long-term survival of elephant populations. As for China, it can be part of the solution, Martin said. "If Chinese officials and traders can tighten their controls and law enforcement, they can reduce the illegal ivory trade in China."

  2. "Foreign poachers target Cameroon elephants: Expert - December 4, 2012"

    EMMANUEL TUMANJONG, Associated Press (get article)

    YAOUNDE, Cameroon ä Despite armed guards, Cameroon's dwindling elephant population is being decimated by heavily armed gangs of international poachers, according to a top official of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

    Tighter security has been mounted because intelligence shows that two gangs of poachers from Sudan are heading for the area, said WWF Cameroon conservation director Hanson Njiforti at a press conference Tuesday.

    In the first quarter of this year, poachers traveled more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) on horseback from Sudan, crossing through the Central African Republic to reach northern Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park where they killed more than 300 elephants in two months. The killings wiped out about 80 percent of the park's elephant population.

  3. "Two ivory traffickers arrested in Libreville (Gabon) - November 18, 2012 "

    Khephren Fang, Gabonews (get article)
    The efforts of the authorities and partners have once again been rewarded in the fight against trafficking in ivory. The General Directorate of Wildlife and Protected Areas, the Directorate Counter Interference supported by the NGO Conservation Justice, have indeed struck again and formalized their collaboration.

    Two ivory traffickers were arrested with nearly 40 kg of ivory, on Tuesday, November 13th , at a hotel in Libreville. One of them is of Cameroonian nationality and is called Magloire Maurice AMOUGHOU and other, a Senegalese called Mor Gueye Maty. It is a large network that organizes the reception of ivory from across the country to be resold to various exporters to China, West Africa and other destinations where ivory prices are higher. This market is very lucrative because the costs practiced in some countries are much higher than in Gabon. This is why many foreigners illegally transport the products to these destinations. They have been transferred to Justice and on Monday 19th November they will be judged for their actions.

  4. "In Gabon, Lure of Ivory Is Hard for Many to Resist - December 26, 2012"

    JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, The New York Times (get article)

    OYEM, Gabon ä This lush country, often called a ˝forest republic,ţ used to stand proudly apart from its shaky neighbors, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, tropical disaster zones where state failure, rebel marauders and loose weapons conspired to spell doom for endangered wildlife.

    Gabon═s government, blessed with billions of dollars of oil money and miles and miles of virgin rain forest, has made many of the right moves to protect its animals by setting aside chunks of land for national parks, actually paying wildlife rangers on time (a rarity in Africa) and recently destroying a towering mountain of ivory in a statement of its refusal to look the other way. But as the price of ivory keeps going up, hitting levels too high for many people to resist, Gabon═s elephants are getting slaughtered by poachers from across the borders and within the rain forests, proof that just about nowhere in Africa are elephants safe.

    In the past several years, 10,000 elephants in Gabon have been wiped out, some picked off by impoverished hunters creeping around the jungle with rusty shotguns and willing to be paid in sacks of salt, others mowed down en masse by criminal gangs that slice off the dead elephants═ faces with chain saws. Gabon═s jails are filling up with small-time poachers and ivory traffickers, destitute men and women like Therese Medza, a village hairdresser arrested a few months ago for selling 45 pounds of tusks. ˝I had no idea it was illegal,ţ Ms. Medza said, almost convincingly, from the central jail here in Oyem, in the north. ˝I was told the tusks were found in the forest.ţ She netted about $700, far more than she usually makes in a month, and the reason she did it was simple, she said. ˝I got seven kids.ţ

    It seems that Gabon═s elephants are getting squeezed in a deadly vise between a seemingly insatiable lust for ivory in Asia, where some people pay as much as $1,000 a pound, and desperate hunters and traffickers in central Africa. It is a story of temptation ä and exploitation ä and it shows that the problem is not just about demand, but about supply as well. Poverty, as well as greed, is killing Africa═s elephants. Across the continent, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year in what is emerging as one of the gravest wildlife crises in decades. Gabon═s elephants are among the last of the planet═s rare forest elephants, a subspecies or possibly a totally distinct species (scientists can═t agree), which makes the stakes particularly high here. Forest elephants are smaller than their savanna cousins and have an alluring, extra-hard pinkish ivory that is especially prized.

    A few decades ago, there were perhaps 700,000 forest elephants roaming through the jungles of central Africa. Now there may be fewer than 100,000, and about half of them live in Gabon. ˝We═re talking about the survival of the species,ţ said Lee White, the British-born head of Gabon═s national parks. In June, Gabon═s president, Ali Bongo, defiantly lighted a pyramid of 10,000 pounds of ivory on fire to make the point that the ivory trade was reprehensible, a public display of resolve that Kenya has put on in years past. It took three days for all the ivory to burn, and even after the last tusks were reduced to glowing embers, policemen vigilantly guarded the ashes. Ivory powder is valued in Asia for its purported medicinal powers, and the officers were worried someone might try to sweep up the ashes and sell them.

    Some African countries, like Zimbabwe and Tanzania, are sitting on million-dollar stockpiles of ivory (usually from law enforcement seizures or elephants that died naturally) that someday may be legal to sell. Gabon has the unusual luxury of kissing its ivory mountain goodbye because it has an even more lucrative resource: two billion barrels of crude oil. But it is not clear how long Gabon will continue as this relatively prosperous, politically stable corner of Africa. Protesters recently began chaffing against Mr. Bongo═s rule, saying he rigged an election to ensure that he would take over from his father, who died in 2009 after 41 years in office. Despite the country═s conservation policies, which wildlife groups say are among the best in Africa, the logging men dig deeper into the rain forest each day, felling colossal trees, dragging them out with chains and shipping them out on logging roads that lead to where the elephants live.

    The growing resentment of the government is undermining conservation efforts, too, with villagers grumbling about not seeing a trace of the oil money and saying Mr. Bongo should not lecture them about poaching for a living. The village of Bitouga is a study in bitterness about five hours away from the small administrative hub of Oyem, reached only after a sweaty hike through the jungle and a precarious ride in a dugout canoe up a river so rich and sooty with tannin that the water is nearly black. Bitouga═s people live in rough clapboard houses with floors of dirt. They do not have any electricity or clean water, which villagers say is a scandal in a country with a per capita gross domestic product of $16,000, one of the highest in Africa. The children here eat thumb-size caterpillars, cooked in enormous vats, because there is little else to eat. Many men have bloodshot eyes and spend their mornings sitting on the ground, staring into space, reeking of sour, fermented home-brew. For generations, the people of Bitouga, who are from the Baka ethnic group, have lived off the game in their ancestral forests. ˝Elephant meat is pretty good,ţ said Jean-Paul Ndangbifele, paddling his dugout canoe upriver. ˝A lot like beef.ţ But now they have been ordered to stop killing elephants and other endangered animals. Officials said that several Baka hunters had cycled through Oyem═s prison, sometimes co-opted into killing elephants for as little as a sack of salt, which most Baka are too poor to afford. Baka hunters said they were routinely approached by well-dressed men with shotguns and invited to ˝work together.ţ ˝The first thing a civil servant will do when they get sent to Minvoul,ţ a nearby town, ˝is buy a gun and start sponsoring elephant hunts,ţ said Marc Ella Akou, an inventory officer for the World Wildlife Fund in Gabon.

    International law enforcement officials say the illicit ivory trade is dominated by Mafia-like gangs that buy off local officials and organize huge, secretive shipments to move tusks from the farthest reaches of Africa to workshops in Beijing, Bangkok and Manila, where they are carved into bookmarks, earrings and figurines. But often the first link in that chain is a threadbare hunter, someone like Mannick Emane, a young man in Bitouga. Adept in the forest, he was trained nearly from birth to follow tracks and stalk game, and was puffing idly on a cigarette he had just lighted with a burning log. He conceded he would kill elephants, ˝for the right price.ţ ˝Life is tough,ţ he said. ˝So if someone is going to give us an opportunity for big money, we═re going to take it.ţ Big money, he said, was about $50. His friend Vincent Biyogo, also a hunter, nodded in agreement. ˝When I was born,ţ he said, ˝I dreamed of a better life, I dreamed of driving a car, going to school, living like a normal human being.ţ ˝Not this,ţ he added quietly, staring at a pot of boiling caterpillars. ˝Not this.ţ

  5. "Central Africa: The Ivory Wars - How Poaching in Central Africa Fuels the LRA and Janjaweed - 14 January, 2013 "

    Keith Somerville, African Arguements (get article)
    There are no final or totally verifiable figures for the numbers of elephants slaughtered for their ivory in 2012.

    However, reports from Cameroon, DR Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic suggest a massive and continuing rise in killings and, ominously, the involvement of military and criminal groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, Chadian poaching gangs and a ring of well-established Darfurian smugglers.

    CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Resolve (an NGO focused on stopping the LRA) and UN data all point towards a growth in ivory poaching across a wide belt of Central Africa - all in areas affected by insurgent or militia activity. Conservationists in 2012 generally focused on South African rhino poaching, which continues to rise at a catastrophic rate, with over 633 animals killed up to 19th December last year - a 19 per cent rise on the previous year and almost double the number of rhinos killed in 2010.

    But now Central Africa's elephants seem at even greater risk than South Africa's rhinos in a region where militias operate with relative impunity. The inability of governments to control much of their own territory, let alone multiple borders, makes any form of viable control and protection virtually impossible.

    Central Africa's ivory wars

    The involvement of militias and rebel groups in ivory poaching and smuggling is nothing new. During the late 1970s and 1980s both UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique (with the active participation of elements in South Africa's special forces and Military intelligence) were heavily involved in the killing of elephants and the export of illegal ivory via routes facilitated by Military Intelligence, through Pretoria. Many of those involved in South Africa's Special Forces had been professional hunters, game park wardens or in other ways involved in the wildlife business before being trained for bush warfare. They helped UNITA and the Mozambican resistance movement establish efficient ivory harvesting operations.

    The sale of the tusks in East Asia brought in funds that went into further destabilization of the Southern African frontline states, though much went into the pockets of South African officers and intelligence officials, as Stephen Ellis identified in his extensive research in the 1990s. The newly observed increase in poaching, and the consequent reduction in elephant numbers in central Africa, indicates that military involvement in poaching spreads across an area from Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then up into the Central African Republic with smuggling routes reaching through Darfur and thence Khartoum. It has, however, been the suspected involvement of the LRA that stimulated a greater degree of press attention. According to CITES, and local wildlife officials, there has been an increase in poaching in DR Congo and in reserves in eastern and north-eastern Central African Republic.

    The LRA role made news towards the end of 2012 - not just because of the killings of elephants, but due to the surge of interest in Kony through the flawed Kony 2012 campaign, which brought the LRA's brutal modus operandi to global attention. Whatever the faults of Invisible Children's campaign, it put the spotlight, albeit briefly, on the LRA and the US-backed military operation involving Uganda, South Sudan, CAR and the DRC in trying to track him down. This has so far failed as he has proved able to traverse large areas of this region of multiple insurgencies, rebellions and porous borders.Paul Ronan of Resolve, which has worked with Invisible Children and attempts to track LRA activities and their whereabouts, told the author that Kony is believed to be in an area straddling the border between South Sudan and Sudan's Darfur province. Close to the border with the Central African Republic - currently experiencing a major rebellion - the area is unpoliced, is a well-known smuggling route (notably for gold and ivory) used by gangs from Darfur and is close to areas of the CAR controlled by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des Forces DZ mocratiques pour le Rassemblement, UFDR), which is part of the Seleka rebel coalition. The UFDR is supported by the Sudanese government and has control of goldfields and smuggling routes in eastern CAR. This region is used as a route for smugglers moving contraband through Chad and CAR into Darfur and then on to Khartoum. The New York Times in 2012 reported that the LRA, the Somali al Shabaab movement and Darfur's Janjaweed, were poaching elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons.These movements killed the elephants and moved the tusks to Darfur, where smuggling gangs took over the trade to move the ivory around the world especially to markets in China and Vietnam.
    br> Paul Ronan, who was in South Sudan and the CAR at the end of 2012, says that some of the media reports of massive killings of elephants by the LRA are clearly exaggerated, but that wildlife officials from the Garamba reserve in northern DRC, and escaped LRA abductees, say that the group has been killing elephants in Garamba on the orders of Kony and taking the ivory to his current base on the border of South Sudan and Darfur. Ronan believes the LRA does not have an established income from this, but may be using the ivory to reward Darfuri officials who are enabling them to remain in the region. In a statement at the end of December CITES stated, with reference to the DRC, "The illegal killings of large number of elephants for their ivory are increasingly involving organised crime and in some cases well-armed rebel militias."

    The LRA is blamed for some of the killings, but the finger is also being pointed at forces supposedly tracking down Kony. In April 2012, for example, 22 dead elephants, all shot cleanly in the head, were found by rangers in Garamba. They found no tracks leading away from the carnage or signs that the poachers had stalked on the ground. The tusks had been taken, but no meat, which local poachers usually take advantage of. Soon after, game guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying over the park, it disappeared after being seen. According to the New York Times article, park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities believe that the Ugandan military killed the elephants from a helicopter and left with around a million dollars worth of ivory. The park's 140 armed rangers patrol daily but have been outgunned by large militia groups and are in no position to cope with incursions by the Ugandan army ostensibly looking for Kony, but taking ivory on the side.

    It is not only in the DRC where elephants are disappearing. Paul Ronan said that he had talked to professional hunters operating concessions in south-eastern CAR who said that increasing numbers of Darfur-based poachers were moving into CAR for ivory. And further west, according to CITES, Cameroon has been hit - in Bouba N'Djida National Park, in northern Cameroon, up to 450 elephants were allegedly killed by groups from Chad and Sudan early this year. The Cameroonian authorities are particularly worried about the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, who they blame for recent killings. This militia is made up of heavily-armed militiamen mounted on horses who can travel fast and traverse the region's unpoliced borders with little trouble - they are linked with the Darfur-based smuggling networks. In an area where governments are unable to provide basic security for their own citizens, rangers and elephants in remote game reserves and conservation areas are particularly vulnerable.

    The Cameroonian army says it has now deployed military helicopters and 600 soldiers to try to protect the park and its animals. But the park authorities believe that in 2012, during the dry season, poachers from Sudan killed some 300 elephants, or 80 percent of the park's elephant population. It is a sad fact that it is the innocent who always suffer as a result of war and crime. In central Africa, populations have lived and suffered amidst a maelstrom of rebellions, insurgencies, cross-border raiding and simple but brutal crime. The first priority must be an end to the conflicts and to the humanitarian crises they cause. But it would be a crime, too, if the conflicts led to a conservation disaster through the destruction of the region's large but rapidly diminishing elephant herds.

    Keith Somerville, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Kent; Editor of Africa - News and Analysis.

  6. "11,000: Number of Gabon Elephants Killed in Less Than 10 Years. 6 February, 2013."

    Jaymi Heimbuch, treehugger(get article)
    11,000 elephants killed in one national park area in under a decade. That might be the most depressing number you'll read all day.

    Reuters reports that Gabon and its forests are home to about half of the world's remaining forest elephants, which number roughly 100,000. As economies in Asia continue to strengthen, more people can afford the much-prized ivory which means demand has exploded -- and so has the level of poaching, not only in Gabon but across Africa.

    Reuters states:

    Poachers are often armed with large-caliber rifles and chainsaws to remove tusks, the statement issued by the presidency said. They have secret camps in the rainforest, evading small deployments of park guards and leaving rotting elephant carcasses in their wake. A park official said most of the poachers were believed to be from neighboring Cameroon, where the government has deployed army helicopters and hundreds of troops to protect its own dwindling elephant population.

    Last year, nearly 500 elephants were slaughtered in under two months in Cameroon.

    Meanwhile, Washington Post reported mid-January, "Custom officials seized 638 pieces of illegal elephant ivory estimated to be worth $1.2 million at Kenya═s main port, evidence of what wildlife officials described Wednesday as a growing threat to East Africa═s elephants."

    And just a couple weeks before that, on January 5, eleven elephants were killed in one massacre by a gang of poachers at Bisadi area of Tsavo East National Park.

    News for elephants is rarely positive, and even less so as demand for their ivory increases. While some celebrities like Yao Ming have made efforts to bring attention to the issue, the future of elephants is dependent to some extent on African countries' abilities to stop poachers, but is much more dependent on ending the Asian demand for ivory.

  7. "WWF hosts a press conference on the preservation of forest elephants. 18 February, 2013"

    Gabon News(get article)

    The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), will host a press conference later today in Libreville, on the status of forest elephants endangered in the region of Central Africa, including Gabon where a final report describes the massacre of 11,000 elephants by poachers between 2004 and 2012, in the national park of MinkZ bZ , bordered by Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville.

    ˝The press conference will also mark the launch of the campaign of WWF for the protection of forest elephants that will last more than a yearţ, said an expert from WWF.

    The expert also noted that the surge of elephant poaching is due to an increase in price of ivory on the international market.

    '' The price of a kilogram of ivory is at an all time high of 80,000 CFA,'' he revealed.

    In January, 17 poachers were arrested in the Gabonese landscape Dja-Odzala-MinkZ bZ  (TRIDOM), an area divided between Gabon, Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville. These three protected areas are recognized as a priority area for the conservation of biodiversity.

  8. "Gabon hardens gun laws as elephant poaching increases. 19 February, 2013"

    Wanderlust(get article)

    Rifles using types 375 and 458 ammunition will be banned from sale, as will large calibre ammunition, in an effort to reduce the increasing number of elephant deaths due to poaching.

    Home to about half of the world's forest elephants, as well as large numbers of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, Gabon has been heralded as having massive potential destination for eco-tourism. It was featured in the recent Africa series, including a scene showing a hippo in the sea Gabon is the only country where hippos have been seen to enter the ocean.

    However, the country has seen a sharp rise in poaching in recent years. Wildlife officials believe that as many as 50 to 100 elephants are being killed every day in the country's dense forests. Gabon's government commented that over 11,000 elephants in the MinkZ bZ  National Park have been killed since 2004.

    Efforts to apprehend poachers has proven difficult due to their small, secret camps located in the vast and densely forested interior of the country.

    The value of forest elephant tusk could exceed that of savanna elephants due to their harder, straighter tusks that are easier to transform into jewellery and ornamental items.

    Gabon is the latest in a series of poaching hot-spots to implement harsher measures as a result of increasing number of poaching cases. In the Assam region of India, 'shoot-on-sight' orders are being considered to combat escalating rhino poaching. Similarly, South Africa's Kruger park has lost nearly 100 rhino this year due to an ever-increasing demand for the keratin-based horn.

    The impact of the stricter gun measures in Gabon remains to be seen as many poachers have reportedly made their way into the country via neighbouring Cameroon.

    Wanderlust's Lyn Hughes, who has visited the country, said: "It is frustrating and tragic news that poaching has escalated in this way. Gabon has so much in the way of biodiversity and beauty. It could be one of the world's top wildlife and adventure destinations, resulting in a sustainable future, if it put its mind to it

  9. "Central Africa: Palm Oil Expansion Threatens Congo Basin Forests - Report. 21 February, 2013"

    Megan Rowling, AlertNet 21 February, 2013(get article)

    London ä Industrial cultivation of oil palm has "wreaked havoc" on rainforests and forest peoples in Southeast Asia and now threatens to do the same in the Congo Basin, a report from the Rainforest Foundation UK warned on Thursday.

    Research commissioned by the forest protection group found that half a million hectares of new palm oil projects are getting underway in the Congo Basin rainforest, which will result in a fivefold increase in the area of large-scale palm plantations in the region.

    "This is a stark new threat to the second largest contiguous rainforest in the world," the report said.

    Around 1.6 million hectares of new developments have been announced in the central African region since 2009, and palm oil companies are actively searching for bigger areas, the report said. Some 115 million hectares, or two thirds of the total Congo Basin forest area, is believed to have suitable soil and climate for growing oil palms, it noted.

    The forest area of the Congo Basin spans the borders of six countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

    Between 1990 and 2005, the expansion of oil palm cultivation - often illegal - resulted in the deforestation of 1.1 million hectares in Malaysia and 1.7 million hectares in Indonesia, according to the report. Between 50 and 60 percent of oil palm development in the two countries during this time occurred at the expense of natural forests, it added.

    "The human cost of palm oil production has been alienation of forest peoples from their land, land conflicts and the pollution or over-use of water sources," it said. "Oil palm expansion on peat forests has been a major contributor to increased climate change emissions."

    Endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers have also had their habitats cleared in Indonesia, it added.

    Despite this, governments in the Congo Basin are welcoming palm oil firms "with open arms", believing they may bring prosperity and jobs to one of the world's poorest regions, the report said.

    But not everyone agrees this is the best model of development for local people. "New large-scale oil palm developments are a major threat for communities, livelihoods and biodiversity in the Congo Basin," said Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Center for Environment and Development (CED) in Cameroon.

    "It is absolutely not the appropriate answer to the food security and job creation challenges the countries are facing. Supporting small-scale family agriculture is a better solution," he added.


    Simon Counsell, the Rainforest Foundation UK's executive director, said African governments are handing out large tracts of rainforest for palm oil development with little or no attention to the likely impacts on the environment or the people who depend on the forest.

    "There is a need for regional agreement to ensure that best practices are mandatory for any new oil palm development, including avoiding high conservation-value forests and ensuring the rights of existing forest dwellers are respected," he urged.

    The report provides case studies of three large palm oil developments in the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Cameroon.

    In Congo, Atama Plantations - partly owned by Malaysian pipe-coating firm Wah Seong Corporation Berhad (WSC) - plans to establish the largest oil palm plantation in the Congo Basin at up to 180,000 hectares. Much of the area designated for clearance, some of which has already begun, appears to be virgin rainforest that is a habitat for endangered species including chimpanzees and forest elephants, the foundation said.

    In a response to the research, WSC said the assessment of its investment in Congo had failed to take into account its projected economic benefits for the nation's people and the expected contribution to gross domestic product of the oil palm industry over the next few decades.

    In Gabon, Singaporean agricultural commodities trading giant Olam plans to develop 130,000 hectares of oil palm, increasing the country's commercially farmed land area by 85 percent, which could have significant environmental impacts and uncertain social consequences, especially for traditional forest communities, according to the Rainforest Foundation.

    At the same time, it acknowledged that the company is attempting to address some of the potential negative impacts by setting aside the most valuable forest areas, paying a minimum wage, and promising housing, health check-ups and other development assistance for local communities.

    Nonetheless, the project will involve the clearance of large areas of secondary tropical forests, resulting in huge carbon dioxide emissions, the report said.

    The third plantation project is that planned by a New York-based agribusiness, Herakles Farms, in Cameroon. In a separate report, also released this week, Greenpeace USA said that at least 86 percent of the 73,000-hectare concession area in the Southwest Region of Cameroon is dense natural forest, and cutting it down would release up to 9.5 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

    Some of the potential negative consequences of these large-scale palm oil developments could be avoided if practical steps are taken quickly, the Rainforest Foundation argued.

    They include greater transparency of deals between companies and Congo Basin governments, respect for customary land rights and proper consultation with communities, support for smallholder palm oil production, rehabilitation of old plantations and use of degraded land, and enabling non-governmental organisations in the region to play a role in evaluating projects and helping local people speak out about their concerns.

    "Much more needs to be done to inform and open public debate within the region," the report concluded.