The Uncertain Future of Elephants

Earth’s largest land animals, elephants, have never been more threatened. Dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations and individuals are working on various tactics in hopes of turning the current very negative trend.

 

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Since 1977 the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been devoted to protecting elephants. Their Orphans Project is noted for rescuing, raising and rehabilitating elephants and rhinos for eventual release at Tsavo National Park. Tourists are moved by seeing orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Trust’s elephant orphanage in Kenya and they chip in to help by “adopting” an elephant or rhino, helping to pay the costs of raising these big babies. It’s hard to resist these youngsters and certainly, we didn’t even try to do so on our visit there, promptly adopting two elephants and one rhino for a two-year period.

 

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Safaris take people out to see elephants in the wild, but too often people enjoy the safari experience without understanding the unseen threat of poachers that is one of the causes for so many elephant and rhino orphans. These highly engaged tourists could be donors if their guides would share the stories of how populations are declining and options for where to make contributions.

 

An old bull is nicknamed a "tusker." This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

An old bull is nicknamed a “tusker.” This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

Elephant orphanages and ecotours do not offer a panacea in the battle to save elephants. They are one piece of a complex puzzle that might build greater empathy among tourists for the plight faced by elephants. Better monitoring of populations is important to detect and interdict poachers. Research informs biologists how populations are changing. Enforcement officers must be on hand to catch poachers and get them prosecuted. Laws have to hold poachers and ivory buyers accountable. Sadly, the big money behind ivory poaching also contributes to corruption among government officials. Some are paid to look the other way and in many places this allows poaching to go unchecked.

 

Legitimate government and non-government organizational commitments to support habitat conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and education programs all require money and very often, that does not come unless there is broad understanding by people of the importance of the issues involved.

 

Most folks will never take a safari or see baby elephants in an orphanage. The zoo or a television program provides their one chance to learn about the plight of elephants in the wild. Can you imagine telling your grandchildren one day of the majestic herds of elephants that once roamed the forests and savannahs of Asia and Africa that have been wiped out? Although keeping such a large, social animal in a zoo is certainly controversial, we need opportunities to tell the elephants’ stories skillfully. Many zoos, even some without captive elephants, do that quite well. Some also take donations to protect habitat, hire rangers and guard remaining wild populations.

 

We live in a time when our knowledge of environmental threats has never been greater. And yet our political will and tools to protect elephants may not be adequate to the challenge. About 400,000 African elephants remain in nature with more than 35,000 being killed each year. About 40,000 Asian elephants live in their greatly diminished range. And the current rate of killing could reduce this noble animal to near extinction in a dozen more years at this level of poaching.

 

I think it has been shown over and over that we need ecosystems approaches to how we deal with the world’s environmental problems. Thoughtful policy, law enforcement, habitat protection, monitoring and interpretation each play a vital role. Some agencies and organizations choose one or two of these tools in preference to using all of them, but a balanced approach is needed overall. Strategic partnerships are vital in getting organizations working together to save the world’s elephants. Individuals can simply reject the purchase or display of anything made of ivory and help advocate for better support for elephant conservation.

 

World Elephant Day approaches on August 12th and it’s a chance for people from all over the world to speak up about the threat to elephants and the need for diverse approaches to protecting them. A balanced approach is needed if elephants are to be saved as keystone species in their natural ranges.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

Only elephants should wear ivory.

 

 

 

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