Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Today is World Charities' Day

We are going to take a slight deviation today.  Although we promised the next entry would be a final look at our experiences in Tsavo East National Park, we thought it appropriate on World Charities' Day to take time out to give some insight into why we have chosen to blog from the field during our forthcoming safari.

We have had the very great pleasure to share brief moments in time with some of Nature's most iconic species.  But these amazing creatures, which once roamed over most of the land now occupied by humans, are so much more than the classic stereotypes of "majestic", "noble", etc.  Animals like the elephant and lion are an essential component of the great African ecosystems.  They are what is known as "keystone species"; that is to say that without them, the entire ecosystem cannot continue.  The lion is an "apex predator", meaning that it is at the top of the food chain.  This position gives it a unique importance, as it serves the role of regulator.  Without the lion and its ability to expand in numbers in a short space of time, population growth in the large herbivores would reach catastrophic levels, where the only option to prevent complete collapse of the ecosystem would be mass culling.  We see this happen in Scotland with the Red Deer, whose main natural predator the wolf has long-since been eradicated.  Without "management" their numbers would increase to the point where they cause irreparable damage, leading to the complete collapse of the ecosystem and a mass die-off of the majority of species.  The only option to prevent this in Scotland is for thousands of red deer to be shot every year.  That is the fate that awaits Africa's wild places if the lion is allowed to disappear.

Likewise, the elephant is an essential component too.  Elephants are "environmental engineers"; they not only alter the landscape, creating opportunities for other species to thrive but their long migrations lead to extremely effective seed dispersal and fertilisation.  In very dry areas, many species rely on elephants to seek out and create access to water sources.  Without the elephant many areas would simply be barren desert.  We are only just beginning to learn about the complexity of elephant communication and relationships.  Long-term studies are now bearing results that are increasingly pointing to elephant social structures and communications being every bit as complex as those of humans, with equally diverse emotional lives.  We now know that elephants communicate over long distance in sound frequencies below the level of human hearing; that they have the ability to collaborate and plan ahead together and that they grieve over loss in a similar manner to humans.  The simple fact is that elephant intellectual and emotional functioning is so advanced that they cannot be considered by any reasonable person as "just a dumb animal".

In the time it has taken us to save for another trip to Kenya, we have had plenty of time to think about how lucky African countries are that they still have areas of relatively intact wilderness where nature's work is carried out with very little impediment.  However, we are also acutely aware that it is easy for us in our comfortable European homes to point out how important it is to protect these creatures and places, especially when we have not done as we preach in our own lands.  From the vantage point of hindsight and the overview of distance, we can see the big picture and bear witness to the effects of destroying the environment in which we all live.  It is not so easy to see the big picture if you live in the picture though and there is a danger that conservation pressures from outside can be seen as interference and as attempts to prevent progress and economic competition from emerging African states.  Try explaining to the man whose cattle have been eaten by a lion or the family in their shamba whose entire maize crop has just been gobbled up by an elephant family that it is essential to protect the lion and elephant.  Those arguments just don't carry any weight unless they are backed up by viable alternatives to killing.

There are many organisations within Africa that are trying to do just that.  There are compensation schemes for livestock predation, education schemes and local game conservancies, where people can make a living from the tourist influx their wildlife provides.  These help in the short-term but other long-term strategies are needed to protect habitat and to manage the potential for conflict where human settlements border protected areas or human expansion encroaches on wild areas.

This is where organisations like Save The Elephants come in.  We have chosen to link our blog to a fundraising drive for Save The Elephants because we are so impressed with the "holistic" approach to the task that underpins their work.  They don't just campaign to protect the elephant; they get out there and study the elephant with a view to devising new ways to manage human-elephant conflict, both in terms of personal conflict and conflict for resources and land.  Some examples of their innovative work have included creating underpasses, so that elephants can still follow their traditional migration routes where roads have bisected them; collaring elephants with GPS collars that trigger a text message when they approach a village to alert the villagers; research that showed elephants' extreme fear of even just the sound of African Bees, which evolved into a project where villages have been taught how to keep bee hives to dissuade elephants from approaching the village, with the added bonus that the village gets a bumper supply of honey as well as safe crops!

We wanted to give something back to these conservation efforts through our safari, so we came up with the idea that we would blog as we go, allowing other people to follow what happens in near real time and link the blog to a Just Giving page, where people who follow the blog can make a donation to help the work of Save The Elephants.

We sincerely hope that if you find our blog interesting you will join with us in supporting one of the new breed of conservation organisations that takes a long-term view and looks at the realities on the ground and explores the practicalities of sustainable conservation instead of just ramming an idealistic viewpoint down people's throats.  Without organistaions like Save The Elephants these amazingly intelligent and social creatures would simply disappear from our planet.

Please help to ensure this century is not the last for the elephant!
You can donate by clicking here or on the Just Giving link on the right. 

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