Saving animals is no mean feat in the wilds of Africa
We all love elephants, don’t we?
Of course we do. We’ve travelled far as a species, from when it was “acceptable” to naively support elephants exploited in brutally cruel circuses, to ensuring their survival in the wild. The general public have become far more knowledgeable on issues of conservation, with a wealth of information at our finger tips thanks to the World Wide Web, countless nature documentaries from the likes of the ever-great Sir David Attenborough and a renewed vested interest from the public in safeguarding our natural world, planet earth.
A key part of aiding conservation efforts, is for us to understand elephant and wildlife conservation locally. By locally, we mean in-situ where the conservation comes into practice on-the-ground at the “coal-face” so to speak. This is where scientists, researchers, local people and NGO’s (non-governmental or non-profit organisations) get their “hands dirty” and come face-to-face with the everyday complexities of conservation – something seldom seen or acknowledged by the general public and many animal rights campaigns – yet a critical component that must be understood.
We cannot talk about saving wild animals without acknowledging local people. To do so amounts to discrimination.
What’s up with elephants?
The ivory trade (illegal and legal) and accelerating habitat loss have put the African elephant at risk.
There are two species of African elephants – the savanna (or bush) elephant and the forest elephant. Savanna elephants are larger than forest elephants and their tusks curve outwards. In addition to being smaller, forest elephants appear darker and their tusks are usually straighter and point downward. There are also differences in the size and shape of the skull and skeleton between the two species.
Following population declines over several decades due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is now listed as Critically Endangered and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Approximately 415,000 African elephants remain in the wild, according to IUCN
What’s up with humans?
Africa’s (and the planet’s) human population has surged and is pushing ever more into elephant ranges. When farms are established where elephants are used to roaming they become a target for crop-raiding elephants in search for food. An entire year’s crop can be wiped out in a single night, creating understandable resentment from the farmer. Both farmers and elephants may be wounded or even killed in the conflict that results such crop-raiding. Pressure from livestock grazing in elephant ranges is also mounting, impacting the amount of food available for elephants and thus increasing the chances of crop and farming herders being attacked by elephants – who are also rightly nervous for such a highly sentient being.
Fragmenting habitat is another critical issue. With an increasing human population comes infrastructure development such as roads, railways, pipelines and human settlements, and these can all form barriers to the movement of animals, resulting in fragmenting habitats into smaller areas for those animals to move and habituate. Without wildlife corridors to link these “islands of habitat”, elephant herds may have trouble reaching food & water. They may also be separated from other elephant groups and families, decreasing their opportunities for breeding and crucial social bonding – key attributes in the elephant’s circle of life.
Farmers allowing their cattle to over-graze can have detrimental affects on elephants. When grazing goes unchecked, it can quickly eliminate grass in an area, grass that not only may feed a farmers’ cattle, but wild animals also and leads to soil erosion that negatively impacts the entire eco-system.
None of this equates to a healthy situation for elephants or humans and being the decision makers in all of this, humans must take responsibility and suitable actions – addressing population increases and buying habits, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, implementing conservation projects and initiatives, and liaising and (importantly) involving local people in conservation and tourism.
Oh, and why are we still killing elephants for fun?
Arguments for and against?
In tandem with the public’s consciousness towards our natural world, photographic tourism has risen exponentially in recent years. Of course the recent pandemic has significantly affected tourism, with reports suggesting a global revenue loss to tourism of US$2 Trillion in 2021 – but we firmly believe that our industry will rebound back, stronger and more ethically than ever.
Wildlife tourism (Wildlife tourism refers to the observation and interaction with local animal and plant life in their natural habitats) has risen worldwide by approximately 3% year-on-year, combining this with the public’s awareness and increasing dedication to sustainable travel and living, then it’s safe to say that wildlife tourism is the way forward when it’s done right. In fact, wildlife tourism is worth far more to African economies than trophy hunting.
On the other side of the argument are the likes of Botswana and Zimbabwe, with both countries stating larger elephant populations than previously recorded and human-wildlife conflict that can only be resolved by killing elephants (apparently). Biased and one-dimensional views from the likes of Tinashe Farawo, spokesman of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority, certainly don’t help elephants nor the public’s understanding of the issues, with Zimbabwe in 2021 mulling over their decision of whether to cull their elephant population.
In 2020, Botswana reintroduced trophy hunting, sparking another war-of-words and facts from opposing sides. Bowing down to the ethically and morally corrupt hunting industry is akin to permitting further oil explorations in natural habitat – it doesn’t make sense going into 2022. Botswana to many, has been a leader in non-lethal conservation under its former administration, but of course conservation has it’s many talking points, not least what best serves wildlife and local people. Do local people benefit enough from photographic tourism, or do they benefit from trophy hunting? Is it morally correct to kill for pleasure and call it conservation, or is it more ethical to shoot an elephant with a camera and allow that elephant to be viewed by thousands of tourists… and live?
The critical aspect for the public to instil in their perspective is the local person, the farmers and communities who live alongside elephants and wild animals. When livelihoods are threatened, it’s a logical consideration that one may want to protect their livelihood and indeed, their life.
So we must, must ensure that whatever conservation project we support at home, whatever charity you donate to and whatever mitigation in put in place on-the-ground, that local people are involved and benefit from, that they are active stakeholders in the protection of elephants that ultimately avoids negatively impacting their livelihoods.
Wildlife represents biodiversity, essential for our health and the well-being of the whole planet.
Mara Elephant Project
Established in 2011, Mara Elephant Project (MEP) envisions the existence of a stable elephant population co-existing peacefully with people across the Greater Mara Ecosystem (GME). MEP’s approach of monitor, evaluate and protect has worked when used in collaboration with partners to protect wildlife, communities and habitat in the Maasai Mara. Their 10 years of experience using the MEP Method of boots on the ground rangers and applied research all while taking a collaborative approach has disrupted poaching in the region and combatted conflict and habitat loss.
To learn more about Mara Elephant Project, visit their website here
Header image: David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi
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