Where the Elephants Are

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Since 1979, Africa’s wild elephant population has been slashed by about 75%.  Many experts believe that the current poaching rate will leave Africa without any wild elephants by 2025. Those grim statistics would suggest that it is no longer possible to see enormous herds of elephants such as those photographed by Peter Beard in 1976 near Tsavo National Park in Kenya (click here).

The plague of poaching however is not evenly spread across Africa.  Southern Africa has, for the most part, been spared the ravages of poaching with respect to its elephants (but not, sadly, with respect to its rhino population).  In Botswana and Zimbabwe in particular, it is still possible to encounter groups of elephants with several hundred or more animals.  This past August, we found the Savute Marsh in northern Botswana inundated with elephants (pictured above), as far as the eye could see, best estimates being around 800.  The elephant population in this region is mobile, moving freely about riparian areas where Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and  Zimbabwe converge.  Historically, elephants migrated across an even larger area, allowing the habitat to replenish itself in between elephant visitations.  In the 20th Century, civil wars in the region took a toll on elephant populations and many ceased to migrate, congregating along the Chobe River in Botswana, which remained stable throughout.  Now that peace has been realized, the elephants roam more widely, but many return to Botswana at various times of the year or when water is short.

elephant paradiseNeighboring Zimbabwe also has large elephant populations, particularly in and around Hwange National Park, which borders the Chobe area of Botswana.  But now a new form of poaching, more deadly to the ecosystem than ever, has been discovered in Hwange.  In July, rangers discovered about 90 dead elephants, whose tusks has been removed.  Not only were the elephants dead, but so were the vultures, hyenas and lions who fed on their corpses and other animals who drank from the same waterholes.  Forensic analysis showed that cyanide had been used to poison the elephants by poachers; thus, impacting the entire food chain in the area.  Since then more victims have been discovered, bringing the elephant death toll to at least 300 (click here for report). Tom Milliken, program leader for the Elephant and Rhino Traffic network, claims: “This is the largest massacre of elephant in this part of the world for the last 25 years.”

Just when I thought there might be one elephant paradise left on earth, a nefarious ploy by poachers that threatens all wildlife presents itself.  Could all of Africa’s wildlife now be threatened just because humans want ivory trinkets? This definitely raises the threat level.