The end of a year always makes me reflective and this year is no exception. Rather than recap the sorry state of affairs of American Politics – arguably the one of the biggest news stories of the year – I instead wanted to share some inspiration. I wrote this post to honor the amazing work being done by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) to support the continued survival of the African elephant.
Did you know that there is a real possibility of wild elephants going extinct in the next 20 years? I certainly did not. I think I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that elephants were endangered and that ivory poachers were a significant threat but I hadn’t realized that the picture was so bleak. Not to be an alarmist, but bleak it is. The most comprehensive elephant census conducted to date estimates that there are only about 350,000 wild elephants left in Africa, with roughly 27,000 being killed on an annual basis. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that if this trajectory continues the elephants will be gone from Africa in the very near future.
Elephants in both Africa and Asia are under constant threat from poaching, habitat loss and the resultant, if inevitable, human conflict arising from increasingly overlapping human settlements and wildlife areas. Elephants are not the only species impacted by these issues but they have captured my heart beyond the others for so many reasons. Here are just a few elephant facts that left an indelible impression.
- Elephants are sensitive and empathetic creatures: Elephants are long-lived herd animals that form tight bonds with their families. They don’t do well in isolation and feel great loss and sadness when one of their members dies. Elephants are one of the few animal species that have been observed enacting a funeral like ritual for a fallen animal. They become very quiet and seemingly contemplative when coming across an elephant carcass whether that animal was part of their herd or not. Seriously, Google “elephant death ritual” if you find it hard to believe. There is some video evidence on YouTube. Take a look, it’s very humbling and moving.
- Elephants live in a complex, structured society led by a Matriarch: Elephant herds are led by a female matriarch whose job is to keep the herd healthy and safe. An experienced leader knows the best migration routes, how to ward off predators, and teach younger elephants to survive in the wild. Female elephants usually stick together and share calf rearing duties among the group. Male elephants tend remain with the herd until adolescence when they strike out on their own. Importantly, elephants have long memories and often reunite with former herd members or other familiar elephants long after having been separated.
- The death of a leader can have a catastrophic effect on the entire herd: I’ve already established that when an animal dies elephants grieve. When a matriarch dies it can be devastating to the herd and may impact its chance of survival. Younger, less experienced elephants may not know how to best protect themselves or their young from predators. Knowledge of critical watering holes may be less well established in these animals. Elephant society is very complex and when a leader is lost the future is uncertain for all.
- Elephants reproduce slowly: An elephant is pregnant for about two years. Once the calf is born it is dependent on its mother’s milk to survive for another two years. If something happens to the mother during that critical period the calf is unlikely to survive. Even if there is another lactating female in the herd her calf will get priority and while the orphaned baby may be allowed to stay with the herd it will soon grow weak and fall behind. The outcomes for the calf from this point are pretty horrific. A sad, lonely death in the wild from dehydration/starvation or even a more grim death via predation by lions or hyenas. Do yourself a favor and DO NOT google that subject. The video footage from those attacks will stay with you for a long time.
Look, I understand some of this is just nature. The young and old or otherwise vulnerable of any species is always at a disadvantage and nature must be allowed to take its course. Predators have a purpose and they too need to eat. However, what is really distressing to me is when human activity (mainly through ivory poaching and habitat loss) destroys the strongest among this community and leaves the young and weak in a precarious position. Because elephants take so long not only to reproduce but become independent, every loss to this particular endangered species is a significant blow to their overall chances of long-term survival.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an amazing organization dedicated to the protection of elephants in Kenya. Their approach to conservation is comprehensive and multifaceted from rescuing elephants in distress, to anti-poaching efforts, and community outreach and awareness. Be sure to check other their “Orphan Program” to learn about a very special project. The DSWT rescues orphan elephants with the goal of rehabilitation and eventual re-introduction into the wild. The DSWT elephant caretakers or “Keepers” as they are called take detailed histories of how each elephant comes into their care. You will be saddened by the circumstances but inspired by all the DSWT organization does to ensure the animals survive. Sadly, the not all the orphans can be saved but how wonderful that there are people in this world so willing to try.
I don’t want to be part of the era that allows elephants to go extinct. Keep Africa magical! It’s where we all originated. Here are a few thoughts on things we can do now to help in this effort:
- NEVER, EVER BUY ANYTHING MADE FROM IVORY. Seriously, what do you need this for anyway?
- Purchase fair trade coffee
- Limit your use of palm oil
- Get educated and raise awareness of the plight of the wild elephant
- Support disadvantaged communities in Africa and Asia
- Support wildlife advocacy groups in their efforts to address all of the above
Thank you to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and all the other organizations in Africa and Asia dedicated saving these majestic creatures. You are doing the Lords’ work.