The African elephant’s natural life span in the wild is up to 70 years. The median age is 56, meaning that half die before 56 and half live to be older than 56. These statistics, however, assume no human intervention. The poaching crisis has altered the metrics of wild elephants in many ways, none of them good. Studies of female elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli Park between 1960 and 2005 estimate their median age to be 36, a good 20 years shy of the natural median age. While Amboseli suffered a devastating drought in the late “aughts,” poaching has been virulent for the life of the study and is largely responsible for the shortened life span of these elephants.
Worse yet, the impact on longevity goes far beyond the body count from poaching. The elephants with the longest tusks are the oldest, most experienced and most blessed genetically. Poaching has robbed Africa of most of its big tuskers, and with them, their contribution to the gene pool and knowledge banks of the herds, particularly in the case of the matriarchs who lead the breeding herds. This raises the risk for those who survive and the yet-to-be-conceived. Much like a dysfunctional human family, a herd without the wisdom and leadership of the older females will not learn behaviors they need to survive and contribute positively to their pachyderm community. For example, young female elephants learn nurturing skills from their mothers and aunties. Should they give birth absent their 20 years of motherhood apprenticeship, they will not know how to react to their newborn or give it the intensive care the baby requires. And, any baby elephant younger than two cannot survive without its mother. Without the elders’ memory, herds will not know where to migrate to during droughts. The stress level of elephants in groups lacking good leadership is much greater; behavior is erratic and sometimes belligerent. The dysfunction of elephant groups that have lost their elders could accelerate the decline of elephant populations just as surely as the poachers bullet has been doing.
The young elephant in the photo above is a lucky guy, with a doting mother, lots of aunts and cousins. Without poaching, he has a good chance of living well beyond 56. But how can we help insure he has this opportunity?
The best life insurance policy for all elephants would be to eliminate the demand for ivory. Much attention is deservedly paid to the role of the Chinese is driving demand. Yet, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the US is the #2 market for ivory. President Obama announced plans for upping US involvement in fighting poaching and reducing demand, including a ban on most commercial sales of ivory in the United States (USFWS fact sheet on the ivory ban).
Like much of the federal budget, the appropriations to implement these actions are being held hostage to special interests and congressional dysfunction. If you are inclined to get involved politically, here is an excerpt from a Wildlife Conservation Society mailing I received that may help you compose a communication to your elected representatives:
I’m writing to you as a constituent and supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society to ask you to help save elephants from extinction. Please oppose any appropriations riders that would interfere with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) efforts to strengthen controls on the commercial trade in elephant ivory. Riders, like Section 115 of H.R. 5171, would prematurely stop a regulatory process that will consider public comments prior to finalizing any rule changes. It would also result in a return to prior regulations that were fraught with uncertainty for buyers, sellers, and enforcement agents.
An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year for their ivory. At this rate, African elephants will be wiped out across large areas of their range within our lifetime. Individual elephant tusks can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and reports indicate that the substantial portions of these illegal profits are ending up in the hands of transnational organized crime syndicates that also conduct trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons and extremist groups like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and al Shabaab that use the proceeds to finance human rights abuses and terrorist activities.
And attach the short video from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, WILD: Saving Africa’s Elephants. This says it all. Let’s do everything we can to help elephant communities not only survive, but also thrive.