The elephant in the room

Science Editor Natalie Farmer addresses the poaching problem and how our efforts to save one of the world’s most iconic species is certainly not irrelephant

15th May 2017

Maybe it’s because of their gentle nature; maybe it’s because they’re so majestic, or maybe it’s because we’ve all seen Youtube videos of their babies gallivanting around like Christmas came early – but everyone loves elephants. They’re cute, they’re mellow, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to admit that if it were feasible (and not, y’know, cruel) then I would keep one as a pet. But I can’t – and not just because my Jesmond back garden is barely big enough for me and my housemates, never mind a giant grey mammal. No, there’s a much bigger, more important reason, and it starts with a P.

Poaching. We all know about it, perhaps some more than others, but I don’t think the extent of the damage it has caused is particularly well understood across the general population. The Great Elephant Census, an ambitious project funded entirely by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, counted over 350,000 elephants across 18 African countries. This was done by 286 members of staff (including those from wildlife departments, those from charities, and scientists) flying planes across the borders, where they quite literally counted the elephants that they saw, estimating that they found 93% of the total number in these countries.

“The Great Elephant Census counted over 350,000 elephants across 18 African countries”

What is truly shocking is the decline that the census revealed. Between 2007 and 2014, we have lost an appalling 144,000 savanna elephants (they’re the ones with the big ears, if that helps), which amounts to just under one-third of the total population. Despite the fact that 84% of these kind creatures live in protected areas, numbers continue to decline, with the current rate being eight per cent per year. This means that the poor things are being killed off faster than they are being born; fundamentally, if this continues, then they will join the growing list of animals that are now extinct.

“Between 2007 and 2014, we have lost an appalling 144,000 savanna elephants, which amounts to just under one-third of the total population”

Although poaching has been identified as the primary reason for this drop, there are many factors at play, including (but not limited to) habitat loss, mining and conflict. Mike Chase, principal investigator of the census and founder of Elephants Without Borders, claims that the human population in the countries studied is set to double by 2050, reducing the amount of space that elephants have to roam. “We need to give them the space and freedom of Africa,” he says.

However, with 98% of female elephants now being born without tusks in some areas – a quirk of evolution, showing that the mammals are adapting to evade being poached for ivory – it cannot be denied that poaching is still a huge problem. Tuskless elephants cannot dig for food and water in the way that those with tusks can. Tusks are also used in battle, both against other elephants and potential predators, and can be used to attract a mate. So, although the elephants are evolving, it is certainly not ideal and their tremendous tusks have proven to be both a blessing and a curse.

If we have any hope of fixing this immense problem and saving these poor creatures, changes need to be implemented on a huge level. This involves reducing the large demand for ivory across Asia and eventually stopping the illegal trading of elephant products. Furthermore, the WWF works to ease human-elephant conflict by protecting local crops and property from elephants. This involves spreading chili or tobacco to deter them and creating alternative water sources for them to go to.

“If we have any hope of fixing this immense problem and saving these poor creatures, changes need to be implemented on a huge level”

As far as solutions go, there definitely isn’t a simple one in this scenario. I think that we can all agree that elephants are worth the effort; just imagine a world where children learn about these majestic mammals as a species of the past. It’s unthinkable. Although collectively, Newcastle students probably can’t end global ivory trading (but hey, I’m not ruling it out; they say we’re capable of anything, right?), any small contribution to charities like the WWF can help. It’s in times like these that humans need to band together and work towards a common goal. The eternal optimist inside of me says that yes, we were the ones that broke it – but we can be the ones that fix it, too.

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