Thursday, 3 November 2011

Saving Elephants

We decided to run a live blog during our safari as a novel way of trying to raise some money for a charity that has done a tremendous amount of work to improve the survival prospects for wild Elephants.  This is why we did it.

In the early 1970s, the population of Elephants in the Tsavo ecosystem was over 45,000.  By the late 1980s that had dropped to just 5,000 due to poaching for the illegal ivory trade.  With the formation of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989, the Elephants of Kenya finally had an effective protector against the poachers.  Thanks to the efforts and the sacrifices (often in blood) of KWS Rangers, the Elephant population in Tsavo has risen each year since then and now stands at over 12,000.  However, each time a limited sale of ivory stockpiles from those countries who want to release what they see as "tied up revenue" has been allowed, there has been a corresponding spike in poaching due to the market being stimulated by the sale of these stocks.

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
The inclusion of China as a bidder in the most recent "legal" sale of ivory stockpiles has opened a "Pandora's Box" because China has a massive newly-wealthy middle class population who, for the first time, can afford access to luxury products which were once only available to a few.  The stimulation of the market, coupled with this enormous potential customer base has created an explosion of demand for ivory products in China, pushing the price of ivory to record levels, which in turn makes ivory poaching and the illegal trade in ivory a very lucrative business indeed!  It is a testament to the efforts of the KWS Rangers that, despite a massive increase in poaching activity throughout Africa, the population of Elephants in the Tsavo ecosystem has not fallen.

The only place ivory should be is on an Elephant

We did see evidence of the recent upsurge in poaching during our safari in Tsavo East.  Along one of the less-used trails near the Sala Gate, we found five sun-bleached Elephant skeletons in the space of a few hundred metres, suggesting they had been killed by poachers, rather than as a result of the drought.

Elephants lit up in early morning light is a wonderful sight

Poaching is the major immediate threat facing Elephants today but it is not the only obstacle in the way of a secure future for these magnificent animals.  Conflict with humans over resources and habitat loss are two other factors that need to be managed if the Elephant is to survive into the second half of this century.

"Here's lookin' at you, Kid"

The Elephant is a keystone species in the ecosystems it inhabits.  As an "environmental engineer" the Elephant changes the landscape, making it possible for other species to thrive and its removal can have a devastating effect on many other species.  It is also a long-distance pollenator, distributing seeds through its dung.  However, if the Elephant's range is restricted then this "engineering" becomes too concentrated and destructive, so they do need plenty of space to range over.  When human population expansion takes over areas of land used by Elephants, this can cut off migration routes and lead to over-concentration of Elephant activity, which damages the remaining habitat.  Isolation of populations can also have damaging effects on genetic diversity.

A family on the move

People who live in the vicinity of Elephants often come into conflict with them: a small family of Elephants invading someone's shamba can devastate an entire year's crops in one night!  As a result, some Elephants have been shot or speared and some people killed by the Elephants whilst trying to defend their crops.  All of these factors need to be considered when trying to find an effective strategy for the preservation of wild Elephants in their natural habitat.  To work, any plan must account for the need to protect people from Elephants as much as to protect Elephants from people.

It is a priviledge to be this close to an Elephant but will future generations experience this?

Traditionally, preservation efforts have concentrated on reserving areas for the wildlife and stepping up the anti-poaching efforts but these methods don't take account of the Elephants' need to move between ranges or the pressures of habitat destruction or encroachment due to human population expansion and infrastructure developments.  It became clear several years ago that a more holistic approach will be needed if the Elephant is to survive into the late 21st Century.  Detailed research into every aspect of Elephant life and behaviour would be needed and new approaches to dealing with Human/Elephant conflict explored.  In addition, education within Elephant states to increase understanding of the need for conservation and also in the consuming countries to reduce the demand for ivory products is needed.  A recent investigation by a Chinese/American journalist revealed that the vast majority of Chinese ivory buyers believe the lie that ivory traders tell them that Elephants shed their tusks every year and these are harvested without harm to the Elephants!  This is where organisations like Save The Elephants come in.

40 years of rampant slaughter for ivory has caused an evolutionary effect reducing average tusk size

Several organisations have carried out a variety of long-term Elephant studies which mean we now have a much greater understanding of Elephant movement patterns, society and relationships.  We also know that Elephants have one of the most complex communication systems of any creature, including over 70 different vocalisations and 160 gestures, expressions and other tactile communication methods already identified (language and body language).  If you want to know more about these studies read books like "Silent Thunder" and take a look at the work of the Amboseli Trust For Elephants.

The trunk has more muscles than the entire human body and a highly sensitive prehensile tip
Save The Elephants has raised funds for many research projects and has also contributed to or run many others.  In addition, the organisation provides a variety of educational resources, including an outreach project and mobile education unit that travels all over Kenya.  Save The Elephants has also begun to tackle the poaching problem at source, by working with other organisations to provide education on Elephants and conservation in China, thereby targeting the demand for ivory.
Elephants bathing at a waterhole

One study run by Save The Elephants looked at migration patterns and associations between groups of Elephants using GPS tracking.  This led to the construction of Elephant corridors, which provided a safe path for Elephants between ranges.  Several other innovative projects have been spawned by this research, including a project where GPS collars are fitted to Elephants, along with mobile phone technology, enabling text messages to be sent to researchers when there are unusual changes in an Elephant's movements, or to village elders if an Elephant is approaching their village!

The Elephants are coming!

Another project looked at how Elephants react with fear to African Honey-Bees and this led to the use of Bee-hives as Elephant deterrent fences, which give villages not only increased protection from Elephants but also a bumper crop of honey, which is now being marketed as "Elephant Friendly Honey"!

Mother and Baby Elephant

One Elephant corridor near Mount Kenya even includes a $1Million underpass to allow migrating Elephants to cross safely underneath a highway!

Suckling baby Elephant

It was innovative projects like these, which combine ground-breaking research with novel solutions to problems that benefit, rather than penalise the Human communities living with Elephants that persuaded us that Save The Elephants should be the charity we would try to help with our fund-raising efforts.

Will this feisty young Elephant have a chance to have grandchildren someday?

We hope you have found this post interesting and enjoyed some of our favourite Elephant photos from this safari.  Our next post will be the second part of our look at the bird-life we encountered during our safari.

If you haven't already, please consider making a donation to our fund-raising on behalf of Save The Elephants through our Just Giving page.

No comments:

Post a Comment