As a young sensitive child, when the circus came to town I would always cry and question why elephants were asked to perform or give rides. They always looked so sad with their majestic presence and intelligence dumbed down and sold out for the unnatural circus experience. I also felt for those elephants restricted to small areas in zoos where the instinct to roam is also robbed from them. As a child my innocence believed they were safer and happier in the wild. I still believe elephants deserve to roam wild and free, however these days I’m also aware of the impact on an elephant’s freedom due to the ivory trade.
Elephants have complex social structures, and can be very emotional like humans, crying at the birth of babies and the death of relatives. They love to gather together and make fuss of new babies, and females will step in and be a surrogate when another mother elephant is hurt or dies to make sure orphaned off-spring survive. Elephants enjoy play and will often work together to protect each other from predators. Females tend to stay together for life in small family herds, while the males will often live solitary lives unless looking for a mate. Over time baby male elephants will gradually move from the middle of the herd to travel on the outer perimeters of the herd, at times leaving it on and off for periods of time.
At around 14 years of age male elephants will leave the herd altogether. Sometimes they form small bachelor herds, but the fight for dominance can get quite aggressive which is why they tend to travel alone.
The large elephant brain which weighs around 5 kilograms, makes for a very evolved animal. They’re able to identify themselves in mirrors, have incredible memories, interact constantly with each other and understand who they are both individually, and within the group. With this in mind, you can imagine then the utter devastation poaching can have on the emotional intelligence of an elephant and on the elephant herd as a whole. And it’s not just the elephants at risk, often too rangers trying to protect them will be in the firing line.
It’s estimated that poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts en-masse kill around 100 African elephants a day, this equates to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants. Over the last decade Elephant numbers have dropped by 62% and could be extinct by the end of the next decade. Currently estimates approximate about only 400,000 remaining.
Ivory products, which ultimately end up as objects like piano keys, jewellery, religious objects, inlays in wooden furniture, elaborate ornate carvings and decorative trinkets of all kinds, is extremely profitable to those who get away with trading in it.
According to a 2016 BBC UK report, while there is an international ban on buying and selling ivory across borders of most African countries, frustratingly, it is still allowed ‘inside’ certain countries. It is hard to fathom how in 2017 such gentle giants continue to be at the mercy of small destructive, desperate and greedy humans, however, it appears that elephant ivory is now a key source of funding for armed groups in central Africa such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. For a pound of ivory, middle men in the bush pay poachers anything from US$66 – US$397, however as ivory gets illegally sold on and on through different dealers, once it eventually reaches Asian markets, ivory can be worth anything up to US$5000. In an effort to help track the illegal Tusk Trade, National Geographic commissioned the creation of artificial tusks with hidden GPS trackers. You can follow the fascinating route here.
When the price of ivory in China tripled between 2010 and 2014, it caused illicit poaching to soar, therefore the demand for ivory must be reduced urgently for elephants to survive extinction. If the world continues to lose more elephants than the population can reproduce, it will ultimately impact the future of African elephants across the African continent.
Obviously when female African elephants are killed for their tusks it has an enormous effect on elephant societies, which in turn has the roll-on effect of increasing the amount of orphaned baby elephants. For the most part however, it is the Bull elephants often travelling alone from the herd which are easily targeted for their big tusks causing their numbers to diminish to less than half of the females. When you consider that in 2017 more African elephants are killed for ivory than are being born. . . is it any wonder then, that elephant populations continue to decline.
While Asian elephants are also poached for their tusks, the biggest threat to elephant populations is habitat loss in over thirteen countries in the region which used to be traditional elephant territories and migration routes. With less than 40,000 elephants remaining worldwide, as a species the Asian elephant is now considered endangered. What used to be primarily Asian elephant habitats, have now become some of the most densely populated by humans. Habitats fragmented by development, highways and industrial mono-crops such as palm oil and rubber tree plantations, are destroying millions of hectares of forest ecosystems.
Elephants create and maintain the ecosystems in which they live. They make it possible for diverse plant and animal species to live in those environments as well, therefore decreasing and ultimately losing elephant populations will adversely affect many other species which are dependant on elephant-maintained ecosystems, not only causing major habitat chaos, but a weakening to the structure and diversity of nature itself.
As we stand to lose a lot from these important environmental caretakers, it is vital that mechanisms such as World Elephant Day celebrated in August each year, “bring the world together to help save elephants” and raise much needed awareness to the plights of elephant populations, their habitats and breeding programs each year.
So how can ‘you’ help?
There are many ways you can contribute to World Elephant Day . . .
- Host your own World Elephant Day event and screen the When Elephants Were Young documentary
- Inform other people about How to Help Elephants
- Share your love and concern for elephants on the World Elephant Day Facebook page
- Donate to one of the many dedicated organizations across the globe working to save elephants
- Donate to the World Elephant Society to help raise funds for its latest project to research the best opportunities for safe Asian elephant tourism, the continuation of its public awareness and educational outreach about the plight of African and Asian elephants, and the management of the annual World Elephant Day campaign.
But you don’t have to wait for World Elephant Day each year to make a difference, the elephants need us ‘every’ day and the internet never sleeps. If you have a passion for elephants your help is always appreciated and the online links remain.
- Elephant World – Elephant Social Structure Facts and Information
- Elephants and the ivory trade: The Crisis in Africa
- National Geographic – Tracking the Illegal Tusk Trade
- Feature image of Elephant Tears: werner22brigitte via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Circus: freephones via Pixabay.com via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Elephant orphanage: nuzree via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Ivory carving: chris_1010 via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- African Elephant in Kenya dusting itself: kikatani via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Asian Elephant in forest: sasint via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Mother and baby elephant crossing dirt road: StockSnap via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- Elephant crossing sign: niki_vogt via Pixabay.com BY-CC0
- World Elephant Day poster: via World Elephant Day website media kit 2017