Posted: March 24th, 2023
Elephants, the largest land animal presently living on earth, are among the endangered species on earth. They have existed on this planet for billions of years and seem they are becoming extinct. Their great size and strength have intrigued people from diversified cultures for centuries. There are two species of elephants, including the huge sized African elephants and the smaller Asian elephants, which are less in numbers as compared to the African elephants. Since time immemorial, elephants have played a significant role in human cultural, religious, and economic practices. During war periods in Asia, they were used as war beasts. Some of the societies still regard them as gods, while in other regions they are used to symbolize royalty. Elephants have been seen entertaining people in several festivals and circuses all over the world. For hundreds of years, elephant’s huge tasks have been valued for their ivory (Meredith, 2003). Before the human-elephant conflict began, elephants had a wide area in which they would graze and cohabitate. Worth noting is that the African elephant roamed the whole African continent, while the Asian elephant roamed from Syria to North China and the Indonesian islands.
Figure 1: A herd of African elephants grazing in the Serengeti
In recent decades, escalating demand for ivory and habitat loss resulting from human encroachment, have led to an alarming decrease in the elephant populations. The population of elephants in the early 30’s was about 5 to 10 million elephants in Africa. However, the number of elephants decreased alarmingly over the years, whereby 1979 there were only 1.3 million elephants in the entire African continent. In 1990, elephants were entered in the global list of the most endangered species. By then, there were roughly less than 600,000 remaining which is approximately 1% of their original population. Asian elephants were less in number as compared to their African cousins, and currently are even more endangered than the African elephants. At the beginning of this century, there were approximately 200,000 elephants in Asia. At present, there are less than 40,000 elephants in Asia that are left in the wild (Gubbi et al., 2014). Roughly, more than 20,000 African elephants have been killed in the last two years for their tusks, a figure that is much higher than the ones that have been during this period.
African and Asian elephants look alike at first glance. However, when observed keenly one can differentiate the two species. The African male adult elephant normally attains between 6.3 tons and 7.3tons and grows up to four meters at the shoulder height. On the other hand, the relatively smaller Asian elephant can weigh up to 2300kg and can grow up to three meters tall. The African elephant has a swayed back and an elongated head while the Asian elephant has a humped back and a big domed head. The fascinating variance between the species relates to their ears. Interestingly, the huge ears as seen in African elephants imitate the shape of African continent, while the smaller ears in Asian elephants assume the shape of the Indian subcontinent. The drawn-out front teeth popularly known as tusks grow up to seven inches annually. All elephants apart from the female Asian elephants have these tusks. The biggest of the adult African males can have tusks weighing as much as 73kg and can further grow up to four meters in length (Wittemyer et al., 2014). However, most of the animals that were this big are already gone since they were the very first ones to be killed because of their ivory.
A huge population of the African elephants has their habitats in the savanna, though some live in densely forested areas and others even in deserts. Elephants are herbivorous animals and as such feed on grass, fruit, tree branches, twigs and bark as well as other vegetation. A single adult elephant can eat as much as 900kg of vegetation every day. Elephants have only four chewing teeth and spend three-quarters of their day eating. In the dry weathers of their native habitats, an elephant requires around 200 liters of drinking water each day (Hutton & Dickson, 2000). They have the biggest noses among all the other animals which are in the real sense partly a nose and partly the upper lip. The nose is a huge natural hose which has a capacity of holding six gallons or 23 liters.
The Role of Elephants in the Eco-System
Elephants have played a vital role in the African landscape. Humans such as the pygmies of CAR as well as other animals depend on the openings created by elephants in the forests and also rely on the water ponds they dig. They root out trees, open up bushes, forge trails and even make salt licks. Their drops also play a crucial role in the environment. Some animals such as baboons and birds source food in the form of undigested nuts and seeds from these droppings (Meredith, 2003). Further, beetles procreate in the dung of elephants. Moreover, their excreta create manure abundant in nutrients, vital in replenishing the depleted nutrients in the soil. Finally, elephants act as a tool for seed dispersal in some plants whereby some seeds cannot grow unless they have gone through the digestive system of an elephant.
Wild elephants have been observed to have very strong family bonds. The young ones and the females are very social, and they live in groups under the authority of the oldest female in the group. While adult bulls seem to be unsocial, they make sure that they are always in contact with their female counterparts in long distances by using sounds which are way beyond the normal human hearing range. Family groups maintain contact through these low-frequency vibrations. Several groups can be seen converging on a particular water catchment area all from miles apart and apparently do so via some prearranged signal. Humans and elephants have the same lifespan of 70 years. Elephants begin breeding at the age of fifteen years with the females giving birth after a gestation period of 22 months. The babies often weigh around 200 pounds.
Humans and Elephants
Humans began taming the Asian elephant more than forty centuries ago. There before, they were primarily used as beasts of war. The Vietnam War during the 1960’s is the most recent example of elephant use in war, where they acted as crucial supply utilities. They have been referred to as the “predecessors to the tank” owing to their massive size and strength. While African elephants have proved somewhat difficult to domesticate, they have also worked for humans, especially during the period of war. In demonstration, the elephants purported to have ferried Hannibal’s army across the Alps in their Roman attack were of African descent. In the present day, human uses elephants mainly for heavy jobs such as carrying logs (Gubbi et al., 2014). Elephants are the ultimate all-weather vehicles given their firm grasp even on slippery surfaces. Interestingly an elephant can comfortably use its toes to walk. This is possible through the animal’s flesh-heel pad that conforms to the ground and as such enabling them to move. In select rural South Asia villages, using elephants for work makes economic sense as compared to use of modern machinery. Scientific research in swampy areas rely on elephant for locomotion. Tourists visiting reserves in Asia also ride on the elephants to see the wildlife. They are the perfect mobile viewing platform more so in the tall grass that characterizes most of the parks.
Since time in history, Asians have remained culturally connected to the elephant species. A case in point relates to China, where the expression to ride an elephant sounds analogous to the word for happiness. When Thailand was known as Siam, the revered white elephant was the main theme in the country’s flag and culture. Conferring to folks in Thailand, all elephants were initially white and flew in the air to the clouds. Millions of years later, a white elephant went on the side of Queen Sirimahamaya while she was sleeping and as such gave birth to Prince Siddhartha who is believed to be the future, Guatama Buddha. The major Buddhist realms of South-East Asia assumed the most memorable event to occur during the reign of any monarch was the event of a discovery of a white elephant.
Explanations for Elephants’ Endangerment
Loss of Habitation
Given that elephants consume massive amounts of shrubbery, they require a large habitat. Humans have also turned to be an immediate competitor with elephants for living space. Since the beginning of this century, human populations in both Asia and Africa have increased by almost four times the original populations, marking the fastest growth rates in the world. As such, the then forested areas and savanna which were like the elephants have since been changed to lands for crop farming, pasture, and livestock and timber used for building houses and a production of fuel. Humans have ceased to consider elephants as friendly co-habitants. At times when human and the elephants have lived close together, elephants tend to raid the crops. Moreover, the rogue elephants, which happen to be violent male elephants in the breeding season storm the villages. The villagers in return shoot them since they fear them not only for their own lives but also because they cause massive destructions. To mitigate this problem, select countries implement culling programs where rangers or controlled hunters are permitted to execute a predetermined number of elephants aimed at maintaining a controllable herd and de-escalating the human-elephant conflict (Meredith, 2003).
For so long, poaching and hunting have been the leading cause of the decrease in the elephant population. When the whites occupied the African continent, they used the animals as prized trophies. In the recent past, hunters have killed them to get their tusks. Indeed, the ivory trade became a major threat to elephants in the beginning of 1970. An un-anticipated oil scarcity culminated to the breakdown of the global economy, resulting in ivory appreciating in value to overtake gold. Factually, ivory’s reputation as the “white gold” emanates from its beauty, appeal, easily carved, eternal, while also being pleasant to the touch.
Most of the world’s ivory is carved in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, where skilled artisans have relied on ivory supplies to sustain their livelihoods for centuries. Despite the fact that hunting elephants in most African countries is now considered illegal, poaching was prevalent until very recently. For most local poachers in the 1980s, 100 dollars per pound of ivory was very tempting to resist (Hutton & Dickson, 2000). During that time, the local villagers had very few ways of earning a living. Nevertheless, the small-scale farmers or herders stand to earn more by dealing tusks from a single elephant than proceeds from a couple of years farming.
The prices of ivory began increasing tremendously. In that aspect, the poachers became even more organized. They began using automatic rifles, motor vehicles, as well as airplanes aimed at chasing and killing thousands of elephants. By then, the then governments were caught up in civil wars and revolutions and were thus strapped for cash. Subsequently, the poaching of ivory developed into a way of facilitating militia activity. The social structure of elephants is decimated by poaching activities, with the dire result of dwindling populations. Poachers prefer the largest elephants given that they will produce a substantial amount of ivory. In most cases, poachers incline to killing all the adult elephants in the group, leaving the young ones without someone to guide them on migration routes, water springs, and behaviors needed from the adult elephants. This is manifest in the most of the elephant groups enduring in Africa with most of them being without leaders, sub-adults, and juveniles.
Figure 2: Ivory tusks stockpile at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks storage depot in Botswana.
There are a few national reserves and parks in Africa that have taken the task of protecting the elephant habitat. However, most of the parks are not spacious and are very isolated from one another; therefore, cannot allow the elephant population to recover. But some countries have come up with a strategy to curb this problem by developing habitats that are linked together by corridors which will allow some seasonal migration as well as genetic change through mating. Despite the development of such strategies, humans still depend on the same land for growing crops. As a result, it becomes quite challenging to develop linkages between the reserves or parks without increasing the already existing conflict between human and elephants (Wittemyer et al., 2014). Sometimes reserves become successful in providing a suitable habitat, but it reaches a point when the elephants in a particular reserve become too many for the available vegetation. Therefore, they result in destroying the habitat and foraging outside the reserve as they destroy crops.
Prohibition of Ivory Trade
Due to global concerns over the massive decline of the elephant population, ivory trade was officially banned in 1990. Elephants fall under the classification of endangered species on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This implies that the law forbids all trade in any elephant part (Hutton & Dickson, 2000). Some governments have resulted in cracking down hard on elephant poachers while others have gone a step ahead and game wardens are ordered to shoot poachers immediately upon seeing them. Nonetheless, it is crucial to observe that not all administrations go with the ban on ivory. In illustration, in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana the government allows the private breeding of elephants, which serve as medals to big-game hunters. Such administrations hold that trade in ivory should not be prohibited, but should instead be structured. Countries that manage their elephants accordingly argue for permission to trade in ivory to pay for maintenance expenses such as purchasing apparatus and paying rangers. The most appropriate measure would to go for a total ban, as the most effective resolution to protect the populations of elephants from becoming extinct, given that one may not know the difference in ivory from poached elephants and those that were killed legally. The debate on the effectiveness, equality, and insight of the ivory ban continues to attract heightened attention.
The rising economic importance and benefits of tourism to African countries is one of the significant factors that have influenced African governments to adopt strict measures in protecting elephants. A typical example is Kenya, which gains more than 50million dollars annually from tourists visiting the country to see elephants. The national reserves and parks attract crucial income, with tourism being a renewable source of income since it does not affect the population of wildlife.
In the Asian markets where most of the poached ivories from Africa end up, the holy grail of conserving the elephant population remains to abolish the demand for ivory. This has proved successful since it was effective in Japan, which was one of the greatest markets for ivory at the beginning of this century but is currently a minor player. China has adopted advertisement campaigns that feature local and international celebrities, and it has also proved effective. The proportion of people in China who believe that killing elephants for their tusks is a big problem has grown from 47% to an overwhelming 71% in the period between 2012 and 2014 (Gubbi et al., 2014). This public awareness also seems to have a positive effect on policy. The United States and Chinese governments despite their many differences have decided to work together aimed at ending the illegal international trade in ivory. Last year, China started phasing out its local production and sale of ivory while the United States, on the other hand, cracked down on its domestic market which was the second biggest in the world.
In the face of the multiple threats facing the elephant population, there are a few outstandingly brave people doing inspirational work. For instance, in Kenya people who were former poachers have been recruited to the game rangers, which are the world’s first defense line against the illegal killing of elephants. All too frequently, such people have lost their lives along with their line of duty most of them being shot by poachers. Such people, the NGO community, as well as the efforts of most governments, are a source of hope. The defeat of greed and desperation may be hard to imagine, but a world without elephants would be unimaginable.
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