“But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” ― Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
Why is elephant conservation important?
Elephants face increasingly challenging threats every day. Conservationists, researchers, wildlife veterinarians and zoologists work tirelessly to address these threats, to preserve this incredible keystone species. A keystone species is a species whose presence (or absence) impacts all others in their ecosystems.
For example, the elephant population in a national park needs to be managed within a defined range to prevent negative impacts from either overpopulation or too few elephants in the ecosystem. Too many elephants in a national park will lead to large trees being utilised at a much faster rate than the ecosystem can handle. This has a ripple effect for all other species, an example being the Southern Ground Hornbill which relies on natural cavities in large trees for nesting opportunities. If there aren’t enough elephants in an ecosystem, their beneficial functions will not be maximised. One example is that elephants are the primary seed dispersal agent for many African savanna trees, like the iconic Marula and the Baobab trees.
Without elephants, an ecosystem’s entire balance is disturbed, and so it is important to ensure that our planet’s future includes elephants in wild spaces.
The main threats to elephants:
- Habitat destruction by humans
- Ivory poaching
- Human-elephant conflict due to competition for the same land and resources
Visitors to wilderness areas look upon elephants with awe and reverence, while for many communities adjacent to or in these conservancies, elephants are pests and even threats. As our human population grows, we need more space to live and farm, and in many areas, humans end up living right next to, or even in conservation areas where elephants exist. This leads to human-elephant conflict as the two keystone species compete for the same resources. Elephants start raiding crops and people retaliate in various ways. Numbers of encounters between elephants and people increase and people do not necessarily have the correct knowledge on how to behave when near elephants, leading to fear-based responses, like aggression, from the elephants. In some areas, the elephants are mercilessly hunted down and poisoned, killed or maimed by poachers for their ivory tusks which fetch a tempting price on the black market. Elephants are also prone to certain diseases such as trunk paralysis, elephant pox, pneumonia and a virus currently undergoing much research, EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesviruses) which can be fatal.
Solutions are never simple. How do we conserve elephants and at the same time allow people to thrive?
Habitat protection is one of the most effective ways of preserving elephants, along with all the other wildlife and plants in an area. Elephants require large tracts of wilderness to thrive, and when elephants are in balance with their ecosystem, all other species will thrive too. Our partners, the TUSK Trust have habitat protection as one of their focal areas, including habitat corridors which are vital for linking wildlife areas with restored areas and other existing wildlife conservancies. Corridors are an increasingly important tool in elephant conservation. Corridors help to recreate the ancient migratory pathways that elephant herds used to follow, led by their matriarchs who would have passed the knowledge of these routes to the next generation. Here lies another challenge – the ancient knowledge of these migratory routes may well have been lost since the routes were severed by human activity, and wildlife was restricted to smaller and smaller areas as the human population expanded.
With a single pound of ivory fetching a price of around $1500, ivory poaching is a sad and huge threat to elephants. Poachers of elephants ruthlessly hunt these animals, killing them or even worse maiming them to brutally harvest the tusks. Of massive concern in recent decades is the tendency of some poachers to poison waterholes frequented by elephants with cyanide, very effective for killing elephants, but also all other animals that drink from the waterhole. One of the most effective ways to reduce elephant poaching is through well-trained, well-equipped anti-poaching units. Anti-poaching includes units of rangers on the ground right through to organised crime experts tracking the source of the problem – organised criminal gangs. Demand-reduction is a very important, but long-term strategy as well, centred around educating people in areas where the demand exists about what their want for ivory means for elephants. With around 90% of elephant populations that have disappeared over the last century, we believe that all the tools in the proverbial conservation toolbox need to be implemented. For further information on elephant protection and the illegal wildlife trade, please visit our partners the TUSK Trust here.
Coexistence between elephants and humans
Human-elephant conflict is prevalent in areas where people share the same space as elephants. Conservationists and researchers are constantly exploring ways to alleviate pressure on both human communities and elephants. Initiatives are as varied as the challenge is complex. They include:
- the EleFriendly Bus in Sri Lanka, enabling safe transport to schools of children through an ancient elephant corridor;
- Project Orange Elephant which involves the planting of citrus trees around rural homesteads in Sri Lanka to deter elephants from raiding crops;
- extensive education in local communities in Sri Lanka and African countries like Namibia as to the importance of elephants and what to do should they receive an unwanted visit from elephants;
- compensatory funds to replace the loss suffered from elephant crop raids;
- and even building walls around people’s water-points to prevent elephants from destroying access to this precious resource in a region of the country Namibia that is home to desert-adapted elephants.
Volunteering for elephants
Volunteers can assist us with elephant conservation in Namibia and Sri Lanka, where human-elephant conflict is constantly being addressed. To find out more about how you can help as a volunteer, please visit Conserving Desert Elephants and Conserving Asian Elephants. For these projects, the primary source of funding is through volunteers and donations, and they feature in our Top 5 Opportunities to Volunteer with Elephants. We also provide the opportunity to become an online volunteer through our eVolunteering programme in Sri Lanka, launching on 14th August 2020. For further information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learning about elephant diseases
For veterinary students interested in learning more about wildlife diseases and other challenges faced in elephant conservation efforts, we offer a practical 16-day wildlife veterinary module, called Vets Go Wild. Vets go Wild is led by Dr William Fowlds and Dr Emily Baxter, who featured on the UK television show Work on the Wild Side. The Vets Go Wild team believe that veterinarians across the world can choose to become important agents for change throughout their career. Our practical courses are EMS-accredited by international veterinary schools and we are also launching Vets Go Wild Online in the coming months. Should you wish to join the waiting list for Vets Go Wild Online, you can do so here.
By Taryn Ingram-Gillson