Elephants are extremely intelligent mammals with a remarkable ability to remember places, events and information. As I learned about these amazing animals I couldn’t help but draw parallels between them and humans. Among the many traits that we share with elephants the most striking commonality are the emotional responses. Like humans they too exhibit emotions; they mourn the loss of their loved ones, can become sad or melancholic, show compassion or express jubilation. Although I have not seen all these behaviors first hand I did have the privilege of briefly observing an elephant herd once. Needless to say, it was the youngest members of the herd who charmed us all. These two baby elephants were probably less than a year old with a delightful demeanor. They had a playful wobbly gait and an insatiable curiosity for everything in their path. It was their little trunks that led them on their adventure that morning - they swayed it playfully, reached for twigs (and missed), sniffed the air, rolled up the trunk into their mouths, and practiced their trumpet skills. They did all this and more while keeping pace with their herd, which was constantly on the move. Their slightly uncoordinated trunk kept them blissfully entertained and kept me completely captivated.
Elephant are known not only known for their exceptional cognitive ability such as intelligence and memory, but also for their complex social family structure. The matriarch, usually the oldest and largest female, is the head of the herd; she is in-charge of making all the decision for the herd. Each herd consists of young calves and several females who are all related – mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and grandmothers. Herd members pitch in to care for the young; whether it’s keeping a watchful eye over them or teaching them the ways of the wild. Their family structure beautifully epitomizes the proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Male elephants remain with the herd till they reach puberty. After which they leave the birth family and usually join smaller all-male elephant group. The transition from their birth family to independent living happens over a course of few years. Calves and young elephants learn a wide range of behavior from their mothers and by following the lead of older herd members. These include foraging for food, parenting skills, use of tools, appropriate social behavior, and learning to recognize threats, to name a few.
However, the first article I read on elephants was neither about their cognitive ability nor the exceptional traits they possess, but it was about their genocide: 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012 for their ivory. These horrific crimes are funded and operated by an extensive network of organized criminals, the same groups involved with drugs and human trafficking. The killings have been rampant with approximately 96 elephants killed each day. This mindless slaughter of elephants has put the species at risk of extinction. If left unchecked, elephants will go extinct in 10 years. Given the staggering statistics, can we commit to a global and permanent ban on ivory trade? Can we heal a generation traumatized and orphaned by genocide? And finally, can we save a keystone species from the brink of extinction?
This edition is divided into different segments, each with a focus on a specific topic. The topics include elephant behavior, major threats to the species, global policy on ivory trade, the featured conservationist for this edition along with a list of organizations that are involved in elephant conservation that you can support. I also encourage you to visit the last segment “Take Action” to sign the elephant Charter and letters to policy makers; your signature counts and is the voice of change.
Species At A Glance
The three elephant species featured in this edition are African Forest elephant, African Savannah elephant and the Asian elephant. The African Forest elephant was recognized as a unique species only in 2001. You can learn more about each species, their habitat, and other interesting facts by visiting Elephant Voice.
Elephant Behavior - What Makes Them So Unique?
It’s not everyday we come across an elephants nor is it everyday we hear about their lives. However, researchers and conservationists spend countless hours observing, studying, and understanding these awe-inspiring animals. Watching these majestic animals in the wild is truly a magical experience, but if a rendezvous with an elephant herd is not on your itinerary in the immediate future, listed below are videos that will allow you to explore their lives in little snippets.
Video Links: Each videos in this segment is between 2 - 7 min long.
Listed below are the major threats that elephants in the wild face today.
Capturing baby elephants from the wild
Role of civil war in poaching and illegal wildlife trade
1. Poaching: Poaching is the leading cause of population decline in the African elephants in the recent years. 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012 for their ivory, that’s approximately one elephant every 15 minutes. These brutal and horrific crimes are funded and operated by an extensive network of organized criminals, the same groups involved with illegal drugs and human trafficking. China is the largest consumer of ivory where ivory is coveted as a status symbol. The growing middle class in China is fueling this demand and organized criminals are taking advantage of this surge; ivory is sold at $1,500 a pound in the black market. Elephant tusks continue to grow as the elephant’s age. The older the elephant the larger the tusks, hence matriarch and older elephants become the first targets of poaching. Loss of older herd members has a devastating effect on the surviving herd, especially the young. To understand the long-term implications of these losses we have to understand it in the context of their ecological and social dependencies.
Ecological dependencies: Baby elephants are completely dependent on their mother’s milk for nourishment for the first two years of their lives. Although they start sampling vegetation within the first few months of their birth, the introduction of vegetation is intended to teach foraging skills and not intended to be a source of nutrition for the infant. They are usually weaned off their mother’s milk by age 3 or 4. By then they have learned enough foraging skills and can survive on vegetation alone. However, should the baby find itself in the very unfortunate situation of loosing its mother before it turns two the infants chances of survival are significantly diminished, both because of the loss of food source (milk) and the extreme trauma of being separated from the mother.
Social dependencies: Calves and young elephants continue to learn a wide range of behavior from their mother and by following the lead of older herd members. These include foraging for food, parenting skills, appropriate social behavior and learning to recognize threats to name a few. This knowledge transfer happens over a course of several years and the loss of these role models creates a void and leaves the young herd socially and emotionally impaired, and vulnerable to threats. Joyce Poole who has been studying elephant behavior for nearly four decades said, “Poaching is severely damaging the fabric of elephant societies, killing, wounding, and causing long-term trauma to individuals. The social consequences of this escalating persecution can be seen across Africa, and will have repercussions in the years to come." (Orphan Elephants Lack Social Knowledge Key for Survival, National Geographic)
The major threat to Asian elephants is loss of habitat but poaching continues to be of significant concern for them just as it is for the African elephants. Only a small number of male Asian elephants have tusks and it is these elephant bulls that become the victims of poaching. Consistent decline in elephant bull population skews the male to female elephant ratio.
Resources - Article and Video links below WildAid Elephant Infographics (Short video): An overview of the present crises. World Wildlife Fund
It is dead serious(short video): Illegal wildlife trafficking ranks among the top five criminal activities in the world. This video highlights the role organized criminals play in poaching and smuggling animal parts.
Public Broadcasting Services (PBS)
Battle for the elephants: (1 hour documentary): “The elephant, Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal, today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to level once reserved for gold. This groundbreaking National Geographic special goes undercover to expose the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand. It also demonstrates how the elephant is far more complex than ever imagined" (PBS, 2013)
Can elephants survive a legal ivory trade? Debate is shifting against it(Read Article):There are many different proposals on the table, including legalizing ivory trade as suggestions for ending this crisis. The arguments put forth by some may lead us to believe that legalizing ivory trade may alleviate this problem; however, since it cannot be regulated it is not a viable option. A permanent ban on ivory trade is the only option to save the elephants from extinction.
2. Human animal conflict: Loss of habitat is a major threat to the Asian elephants. There is a direct correlation between human population growth and loss of natural habitat for elephants. Forests are converted into farmland, human settlement, and large industrial projects to accommodate the needs of a growing human population. These expansions encroach on elephant habitat which in turn leads to fragmented and restricted home range for the elephants. Human- animal conflict is an inevitable consequence of the elephants venturing out of their restricted habitat in search of food and water. Unfortunately, these encounters end poorly for both sides. Once the elephants discover a crop field they visit it regularly making it impossible for the farmer to save any of the crops. Revenues from crop sales are the main source of livelihood for most farmers in rural areas. Human fatality or destruction of crops due to elephant raids often prompts the farmers to engage in retaliatory killing of these repeat offenders.
For humans and animals to co-exist it is vital that we address the human population growth. We humans are not only contributing to land pressure, but also rapidly depleting every available natural resource. While the issue of human population growth needs to be addressed at a political and global level; conservationist in the interim are advocating to establish and protect wildlife corridors and are testing ideas like bee fences, red-hot chilly pepper buffer zones, and elephant resistant crops as options to mitigate this problem.
Resources - Article and Video links below Challenges of Human-animal conflict (Africa) National Geographic
Taureg Farmers: A short video highlighting the challenges of farming when elephants raid crops during dry seasons.
Solutions to Human-animal conflict (Africa) National Public Radio (NPR):
Warding off marauding elephants with chili pepper (Read Article): Elephant Pepper Development Trust, a non-profit has created a low-cost but practical solution which allows elephants and humans to coexist. They educate farmers about the effectiveness of planting hot chili peppers as buffer zones and making dung bombs to keep elephants from raiding crops. Elephants have very sensitive trunks and a tiniest whiff of chili peppers is warning enough for them to stay away.
Solutions to Human-animal conflict (Asia) Born Free
Elephant- resistant crops: Growing elephant resistant crops in Human-Elephant Conflict zones have proven profitable for farmers in Sri Lanka (Asia) and farmers are embracing this idea.To learn more please watch a short video or read full article.
3. Capturing baby elephants to be exported to zoos, safari and other entertainment avenues like circus. As stated previously, young elephants learn from their environment and from mimicking their mother and older herd members. When baby elephants are captured from the wild and taken away from their mothers it leaves them extremely traumatized and they often die due to the trauma of separation.
Resources - Article link below National Geographic
Zimbabwe's Reported Plan to Export Baby Elephants Raises Outcry Against Animal Trade(Read Article)
4. The role of Civil war in poaching and illegal wildlife trade : Civil war creates some of the most gruesome, hostile, and difficult circumstances for both humans and wildlife, it takes a toll on everyone. An already bad situation is exacerbated by lawlessness and wildlife pays a heavy price. Such conditions are fertile ground for wildlife trafficking.
Resources - Article link below National Geographic
New Doubts About Whether Elephants Can Survive South Sudan's Civil War(Read Article)
Daphne Sheldrick founded David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 1977, in honor of her late husband David Sheldrick. For almost four decades she has helped rescue, hand raise and reintegrate many orphaned baby animals back into the wild. The documentary, ‘My Wild Affair - The elephant who found a mom’ is inspired by one such baby, the very first baby elephant who stole her heart 40 years ago. It definitely ranks top on the must see list. I hope you make some time to watch this documentary. To learn more about her work and meet the baby elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust please visit their website.
Public Broadcasting Services (PBS)
My wild affair – The elephant who found a mom -(1 hour documentary) - “This is the heartbreaking story of Aisha, the baby elephant orphan, and Daphne Sheldrick the women who became her human foster parent. Their bond reaches a crisis point when Daphne leaves Aisha with a babysitter for a few days …” (PBS, 2014)
Are We Heading To A Global Ban On Ivory? There is hope...
In the last three years countries around the world have taken a stance against wildlife crime and crushed 80 tons of ivory ensuring blood ivory never enters the market again. The 11 countries that have participated in ivory crush are Belgium, Chad, China, Ethiopia, France, Hong Kong, Kenya, Mozambique, Philippines, Republic of Congo and United States of America.
On Feb 25, 2014 United States, the second largest consumer of ivory proposed a complete ban on ivory trade.
In August 2014 New York and New Jersey, two key port of entry states became the first states in the US to pass a complete ban on commercial ivory trade
California bill AB96 passed the California Senate in early September 2015 and is now waiting to be signed by Governor Brown. When signed California will join New York and New Jersey in implementing a complete ban on commercial ivory trade
China banned ivory import for one year and commits to phase out its ivory industry.
U.S.-China Deal to Ban Ivory Trade Is Good News for Elephants (Read Article)
In land that values ivory wild elephants find a safe heaven (Read Article): China is the largest consumer of ivory and surprisingly has the most stringent elephant protection laws in the world. Below is an excerpt from the article.
“Over the past two decades, the number of Asiatic elephants in Yunnan Province in China has roughly doubled, to nearly 300, thanks to government-financed feeding programs, wildlife education efforts and a strict elephant protection law unmatched anywhere else in the world. Convicted poachers in China face the death penalty.”
Who To Support
Please find below a list of organizations involved in elephant conservation. There are many ways you can support their cause, but the quickest with immediate impact would be your monetary contributions. Please send your contributions directly to an organization of your choice. Do take the time to visit them all as they each of these organizations works in a different part of the world.