Millions of years ago, elephants were one of the most successful animals on Earth; now, both the African and Asian species are on the brink of extinction
Elephants are the largest land animals on the planet. Once widespread, African elephants roamed the savannah in their millions and Asian elephants were found from Syria to northern China. Today there are around 700,000 African elephants and just 50,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild. Elephants play a crucial role in ecosystem function. The habitats they live in would look completely different if they were to become extinct. As the herds roam across the land they pull down trees with their trunks, open salt licks by churning the soil, dig waterholes to bathe in, and trample trails which act as firebreaks. Even their droppings are of great value. Baboons sift through in search of undigested nuts, and dung beetles take refuge to mate and reproduce. Elephants quite literally shape their environment; they are responsible for creating and maintaining the open grasslands that many other animals depend on. These great giants have been on Earth for 55 million years and through fossil records it’s estimated there were once 350 species of elephant. Sadly only two species remain today as a consequence of habitat loss, poaching and human-wildlife conflict. In southern and eastern Africa, populations seem to be increasing thanks to the success of conservancies and charity work. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of Africa, nor for Asian elephants, where much work is still needed to safeguard these incredible animals.
Elephants have brains and beauty
It seems we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to elephant intelligence; some scientists claim they are so similar to us that humans could learn a lot from the way elephants behave towards each other. The ability to empathise is often associated with intelligence and mostly considered a human trait, but the evidence for elephant empathy is mounting. When one member of the herd is in pain, struggling to climb muddy banks, or grieving for another, there’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence for elephants comforting each other and offering support. If a member of the group is upset, all they have to do is let the others know by flapping their ears and lifting their tail and the herd rallies round, stroking the herd member with their trunks and making soft noises, much like how humans speak softly and hug each other for comfort. Elephant friends are thick as thieves and mischievously help each other clamber over electric fences and remove tranquilliser darts. In studies, elephants have been able to distinguish between human gender, age, and ethnicity just from hearing their voice. They are able to tell this information regardless of the language they are speaking, and can also tell if the speaker means them harm. The ability to decipher so much information from another species’ voice is pretty impressive considering a cat’s meow, for example, sounds much the same as any other cat to a human.
Farmers are fighting back
Elephants have a large home range. It’s estimated that African elephants may need as much as 3,000 square kilometres (1,160 square miles) of land to roam around in search of food and water. To put that into perspective, that’s an area almost twice the size of London. In comparison, smaller Asian elephants need 320 square kilometres ( 120 square miles) at most. The ideal habitat is uninterrupted by human activity, but at a time when the world’s population is growing and land is being converted faster then ever before for residential and agricultural purposes, such an expanse can’t always be found. Elephants are finding themselves confined to small areas of suitable habitat with too few resources. Hungry and thirsty, they are travelling through farmland and developments, inevitably resulting in human-wildlife conflict. In many parts of Africa and Asia, elephants are considered pests because of their destructive nature and tendency to trample trees, raid crops and damage buildings. As they walk through the land and migrate across the savannah, they take advantage of tasty crops they find along the way.
In India, elephants kill as many as 300 people each year. Many of these deaths are the result of crop raiding. A large, hungry herd of elephants can destroy years of hard work in minutes and the farmers are fighting back. Tactics from lighting fires and banging drums, to throwing firecrackers and using firearms are deployed in an effort to protect their livelihoods; however a 2,000-kilogram (4,400-pound) elephant in search of a meal is tricky to deter, and this frequently results in tragedy.
These three organisations are leading the way for elephant conservation in Africa and Asia
Born Free are working in the field to develop ways of easing human-elephant conflict. The Rathambalagama project is based in Sri Lanka, where 50 people are killed by elephants, and people kill 200 elephants each year. The project aims to work with farmers in growing elephant-resistant crops. Plants such as ginger, turmeric, and black pepper are unpalatable to elephants and can be grown to subsidise their earnings and increase their yield. This method is a potential lifeline to farmers who regularly get visits from elephants in search of food, by securing their livelihoods and supplementing their income.
Staying ahead of poachers isn’t easy but the WWF is certainly giving it a go. In Mozambique, the WWF worked with the government to establish a conservancy (Quirimbas National Park). Alongside this, rangers were trained in anti-poaching techniques and monitoring elephant populations. Similar projects have also taken place in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where rangers have been equipped and trained to handle any potential threat. Poaching is usually part of an organised crime operation, and hunters use sophisticated methods and equipment to get their hands on ivory. By strengthening anti-poaching techniques throughout the world, WWF hopes to reduce the success of these groups.
Elephant Family is the UK’s largest funder to Asian elephants. It works with organisations in persuading governments and policy makers to take action. In Kerala, India, it is helping to secure important wildlife corridors, so elephants are free to roam across the landscape. The Kerala corridor is home to the largest stronghold of Asian elephants in the world, so much work goes on here to protect them. Low-hanging power lines have become death traps for elephants and it’s thought many deaths could be avoided if power supply companies maintained power cables as regulations require. Elephant Family is working hard to bring the issue to the fore and hold the power supply companies to account.
Safeguarding the future for elephants
Dr Max Graham is the founder and chief executive for Space for Giants, a conservation charity based in Kenya
What are the major threats elephants face?
Driven by the unprecedented demand for illegal ivory from Asia, 100,000 African elephants have been killed by poachers in the last three years alone – almost 100 elephants a day. In addition, their last refuges are disappearing too, under new infrastructure projects, increased natural resource extraction and agricultural expansion. This means that humans and wildlife are being forced to share the limited remaining space, resulting in human-elephant conflict and thousands of elephants being killed or injured each year.
How can rangers stay one step ahead of poachers?
It’s difficult, but we are making progress! In northern Kenya, where Space for Giants is based, a combination of interventions has resulted in a 74 per cent decline in the illegal killing of elephants over two years. These have included well-equipped and highly trained rapid response teams, who are able to respond quickly to poaching incidents; increasing the penalties for wildlife crime; and community projects that help local people appreciate the value of wildlife and get involved in the fight against poaching. Our challenge now is to roll these successful projects out across Africa.
What are the major challenges in elephant conservation?
Africa is changing very rapidly at the moment, with admirable economic growth putting enormous pressure on natural ecosystems. Communities have complex relationships with the wildlife that shares their ever-decreasing space, and there are many issues to consider – competition for land; elephants threatening human life and crop security; and the wildlife-dependent tourism economy. These pressures will not ease as the economy and the human population continue to increase. Additionally, with the high price of ivory, poachers have become ever more determined and motivated, using sophisticated weapons and equipment, and paying handsomely for information.
What projects are you currently involved in?
Space for Giants works on the ground to provide a secure future for African elephants, the places they live and the species that share their range. We provide frontline protection for elephants in the wild; secure space for elephants; mitigate human-wildlife conflict; provide local training and education; and raise international awareness of the threats facing elephants today. We are based in Kenya but are currently setting up the Giants Club – an exclusive forum that brings together African heads of state, global business leaders and elephant protection experts to expand our work to other African countries.
How can World of Animals readers get involved?
One of the best ways for readers to get involved is by adopting an elephant at www.spaceforgiants.org/adopt. You will be directly supporting the costs of providing frontline protection for an elephant in the Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem in northern Kenya, and get the opportunity to name your elephant. You can even adopt an elephant as a gift for someone else. We also offer unique, once-in-a-lifetime challenge events and conservation safaris through our not-for-profit travel business, Journeys for Giants. See our website for more information about Journeys for Giants or other ways to support us: www.spaceforgiants.org, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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