At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 3 – 5 million wild elephants in Africa. Now, there are only 415,000. The cause of the decline is complex; part habitat loss and part poaching. Most alarmingly, a recent surge in the popularity of ivory threatens to halt the slow growth of wild elephant populations.
A study conducted by National Geographic tried to understand why ivory, which had seen its hay day in the 19th Century before gradually falling out of favour, had suddenly become sought after again. Their findings were troubling. Most people buying ivory (largely in jewellery such as bangles) agreed that they would support tighter constraints on ivory trade but did not understand the link between their buying ivory products and elephant populations declining. It was the same old argument that plagues conservation efforts the world over: I’m just one person, I can’t make a difference. Even more worryingly, many people didn’t believe that elephants were particularly at threat in the first place.
While 415,000 may seem like a large number (especially when compared to the figures of other threatened animals such as tigers at only 9,000 and Sumatran rhinos at less than 100) it’s also important to keep in mind that elephants are a vital part of an ecosystem on a grand scale. In Africa, elephants roam across most of the continent, this is a land mass of over 30 million square kilometres. Not everyone knows that there are two separate subspecies of elephant in Africa, the Savanna (or bush) elephant as well as the slightly smaller and darker coloured Forest elephant. It’s estimated that up to 30% of plants and trees in the Congo basin rely on Forest elephants for dispersal and germination.
Complacency about the plight of elephants is one of the greatest threats off all. A study published last year, The Great Elephant Census, found that 27,000 elephants were being slaughtered each year to fuel the ivory trade.
Elephants are beautiful and, as we are increasingly learning, intelligent animals. African elephants have been seen to mourn their dead, creating fabled “elephant graveyards” and returning to visit the remains of their relatives’ year after year. For a long time, the existence of these “graveyards” was debated, but Dr Joyce Poole who received her PhD in elephant behaviour from Cambridge University studied elephants in Kenya for years and carefully documented many instances of what she termed “body investigation” among elephants.
It has also recently been discovered that elephants are one of the only animals, aside from humans and some primates, that are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. A study conducted at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia concluded that elephants can distinguish between their own reflection and the presence of another elephant. Joshua Plotnik, who led the study, concluded: "There seems to be some correlation between an ability to recognize oneself in a mirror and higher forms of social complexity."
It’s hardly surprising then that elephants, a highly intelligent and vitally extremely social animal, will sometimes come into contact with humans. While in the West elephants are generally revered as majestic and gentle creatures, the same can’t be said for the people living side by side with these powerful animals. And while elephants are intelligent and will generally avoid conflict, they are still very large, strong wild animals. They also eat up to 600 pounds of food a day. This can spell disaster for small farmers who rely on their crops not only to feed their own families, but to generate an income.
In one tragic encounter in 2009, a village in Tanzania chased a herd of 6 elephants off a cliff, killing them all. When researchers spoke to members of the village to find out why they killed the elephants, they learned the people were angry that the elephants had frequently eaten crops and had also destroyed property and water pipes. The anger was compounded by the feeling that the government weren’t doing enough to help “We became very furious and said, let the government chose either people of elephants,” one villager said.
However, in other places, farmers are coming up with ingenious solutions to keep elephants away from villages and farms without harming them. Elephants and Bees is a non-profit project that works across Africa as well as Sri-Lanka, installing beehive fences around farms and villages. The concept is beautifully simple. Around the fence, wooden beehives are installed on strong wires. If an elephant knocks the fence, the bees will swarm. Although the bees aren’t a serious threat to the thick-skinned elephants, the elephants nonetheless have an innate fear of the bees and will retreat quickly. What’s more, precisely because elephants are intelligent, they will soon remember the danger and simply stay away for good.
So how can you help?
Don’t buy ivory products. Just like the drug trade, the ivory trade works on supply and demand. As long as there are people who want ivory, there will be people willing to provide it.
Buy elephant friendly coffee and wood. Elephant habitat loss due to timber and coffee plantations pushes elephants into small areas where they are unable to forage for enough food. In turn, this forces them into conflict with humans. Ensure the coffee and wood products you buy are sustainable.
Learn more. The more people worldwide know about these amazing animals, the better.