An Ode To Elephants

Elephants are nature’s great masterpieces, and fewer animals on earth are quite as graceful and complex as an elephant. These sentient giants are intelligent and altruistic, able to transmit their knowledge from generation to generation through their majestic matriarch, never forgetting all that they know. They recognise their loved ones after long periods of time, know when to arrive perfectly on time for fruit to be ripe, and remember where to find watering holes and paths to food sources over huge distances. Join us to celebrate this magnificent, ancient species on World Elephant Day.

In 1930, there were as many as 10 million wild elephants traversing the vast African continent. But, like so many animals, elephants are endangered, and populations have experienced a significant decline over the past century. In East Africa specifically, populations have almost halved in just a decade, with only around 415,000 left roaming the vast swaths of Africa. The threat of poaching for their ivory, human-elephant conflict, habitat loss and land conversion, all paired with a rise in the human population, are mainly to blame.

But people are working tirelessly to protect this critical species, from conservationists and wildlife organisations to rehabilitative sanctuaries and local communities. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is just one of the world-renowned organisations recognised for its work in operating the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. We recently visited their Voi Reintegration Unit, where the orphaned elephants are gradually weaned and learn how to live as wild elephants. Before the sun had even risen, and by the time we arrived, several Keepers were already busy mixing milk for the 30-odd elephants still dependent on the Shelrick’s Care. On our arrival, the elephants came sprinting down the hill to get their mid-morning milk and plunge into the mud bath. While they prefer the company of their Keeper for now, they will eventually reintegrate into these wild herds and stride the plains just as confidently as the wild herds they once revered.

Coexisting as one

Elephants are the pillars of Africa’s ecosystems; they’re ecosystem architects, knocking down trees and trampling dense grasslands to make space for smaller species. They forge new paths, disperse seeds through their faeces for new plants to flourish, and dig new watering holes using their tusks when rainfall is low, which other wildlife use. The wildlife you see inside Africa’s national parks and reserves is just a small percentage of the country’s population. Elephants have a tremendous appetite and, for centuries, have traversed Africa, mapping out routes to find food and water and avoid danger. These ancient migratory routes are deeply implanted within their makeup, and this need for land, paired with the ever-increasing human population and new infrastructures, often disrupts these routes embedded within their consciousness. Elephants remain in competition with humans, specifically with rural communities that reside on the boundaries of the protected areas. Farmers have been in a constant battle to defend their land from trampling, and safety for the community is an ongoing issue as elephants and humans come face-to-face. But understanding that the local people are also suffering is an important step in tackling the ability to co-exist alongside one another peacefully.

Creating a harmonious relationship between humans and elephants is vital in mitigating the decline of the elephant population. Save the Elephants have created a Human-Elephant Coexistence Toolbox, shared with hundreds of partners across Africa, teaching communities how to exist alongside elephants without risking their livelihoods and lives. Elephants for Africa take a slightly different approach by partnering with local farmers, hosting workshops to teach them how to deter elephants from their land, providing them with materials and increasing overall conservation agricultural methods so they can live alongside these gentle giants without trouble. They also hold ‘Living with’ workshops which provide vital information about how to stay safe around this keystone species.

Tsavo Trust is another conservation group working toward creating an amicable relationship between humans and elephants. They have partnered with Shirango Community Conservancy and Kamungi Conservancy to monitor wildlife, educate the community, and reduce poverty through employment, education and healthcare.

Community is everything

Of course, the most effective conservation is possible when groups band together with local communities. It makes sense; the work must start from the ground up, educating the local people to enable peaceful human-elephant coexistence. Reteti, pioneering the art of grassroots conservation, being the first-ever elephant sanctuary that is owned and operated by local people, is an organisation with all staff recruited from the local community, where all the elephant keepers are from the indigenous Samburu community. This community-led approach to conservation benefits not only the wildlife but also the local Samburu women, who are traditionally married off at a young age with limited education and no opportunity to work. Now, some of them work as elephant keepers, tending to the goats that provide the milk for orphaned elephants and raising the babies to adulthood

Education is key in conservation, and teaching children about the importance of these gentle giants from a young age is one of the most important ways to future-proof conservation and raise the next generation of conservationists. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is committed to educating and informing the younger generation all about how native wildlife can enhance their country, working with children to change attitudes towards wildlife through Community Outreach Programmes. They host wildlife field trips and offer scholarships to students, improve school infrastructure, and host educational programmes to increase local employment opportunities and teach all about wildlife conservation.

Only elephants should own ivory

“Only elephants should own ivory.” wisely stated Yao Ming, a WWF wildlife conservation team member. Every year, at least 20,000 African elephants are killed illegally for their tusks, which remains one of the biggest threats to the endangerment of elephants worldwide. But many conservation groups are striving to tackle this; Sheldrick has front-line anti-poaching teams protecting vast landscapes and tackling poachers, whilst Mara Elephant Project trains and deploys local Maasai rangers and researchers who work at the forefront of their anti-poaching operations. They often go on to live out in the field for more than two months at a time.

Family is everything

Elephants are mighty, sensitive creatures with intricate social networks. They display complex social and emotional behaviour, known to develop deep, meaningful bonds between friends and family members. Their families have a matriarchal head, meaning their herds are led by an experienced female elephant, followed by her sisters, daughters and their babies, with the occasional non-related elephants and a herd of bull elephants invited to combine families. They form lifelong friendships with one another, even going as far as to mourn the loss of loved ones and returning to linger at spots where friends and family members have died. Although occasionally herds can split because of the availability of supplies, they will always keep in touch through deep rumbling calls and vibrations, never usually wandering further than a mile from one another. Don’t you think humans could learn a lot from this compassionate species?

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