Elephant Update — Asia and Africa


Asia and Africa — where the elephants live.  Separate species, the Asian and African elephants are unalike in many ways.  One of the most pronounced differences is their coloration.  African elephants range from griege to rust to golden, depending upon what color of sand they cover their body with to protect themselves from the sun and insects.  Underneath all that sand and mud, however, is basically a gray animal.  Asian elephants all start life with gray skin, but as they age, a depigmentation takes place around their ears, trunks and heads that results in a pinkish-cast.  Some say they develop “elephant freckles.”  But in fact, it is the opposite — a loss of skin color.

What they share is a history of genocide.  In all of Asia, there are now only 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants.  Most of the elephants you see when visiting Asia are “working” elephants (some might say enslaved elephants) — in temples, festivals, logging forests, tourist attractions. “Local” demand for ivory long ago decimated Asia’s wild elephant population.  The same has been happening in Africa for centuries, culminating in the crisis of late, which finally focused the world’s attention on possible extinction of the roughly 450,000 remaining wild African elephants.

The convergence of media coverage, NGO commitments and celebrity created an awareness level that is actually making a difference, albeit incremental and not without substantial future challenges.  It’s a process of two steps forward, one step backward in many cases as evidenced by recent news reports.

China’s pledge to close legal ivory markets and trading by the end of this year is already having an impact on the market.  Prices are falling as demand is diminishing.  Some traders are now faced with an “over supply” although much of their supply is likely black market ivory.  Hong Kong has lagged behind the mainland.  This month, legislation has been introduced in the former British colony that would phase out the legal market over a five-year period.  Recent hearings contained a face-off between African rangers (who pleaded that the time frame be reduced as they put their lives on the line every day) and traders (who argue that they have too much stockpile to sell by 2021).

Legal markets in Japan remain, and there has been much less public attention paid to its markets than China’s.  Regulations exist, but enforcement is  reportedly lax, resulting in fairly vibrant legal and illegal markets.  Japan has an enormous consumer class, as well longstanding traditions of coveting ivory objects.  We should not assume China’s progress extends to Japan and other Asian markets.  In fact, surplus ivory in Hong Kong and China may well find its way into Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos.

In Myanmar, which has a population of 1,500 – 2,000 wild elephants, poaching has recently increased due to a new skin cure fadThe ashes of elephant skin, mixed with coconut oil, is the new cure for eczema while ground elephant teeth supposedly whitens skin.  Although there is no scientific basis for either, as we all know, fads can flourish without any basis in fact.

Overall, Africa’s elephant populations are alarmingly small. In East Africa, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, and in Southern Africa, national parks are over-crowded because the elephants know to seek out protected areas. In addition to stressing the environment in the parks, large elephant populations are increasing human-wildlife conflict. Even if the demand for ivory fell so low that poaching for ivory became history, challenges for the world’s largest land mammal remain.  Africa’s  human population continues to explode and its untapped economic potential is blossoming.

Again, two steps forward, one step backwards.  We should celebrate the accomplishments of recent years; particularly the decline of demand and prices in China and increased vigilance in African countries in catching and prosecuting poachers and traders.  Yet, we cannot let the positive momentum become undernourished; for if we take our foot off the pedal now, elephants everywhere will continue to decline.  Go to the Experts tab on this site, chose an organization whose conservation activities appeal to you and support them!  You really can make a difference.

Cures for Cancers

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Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer?  For some time, scientists have been studying the incidence of cancer in various animals and have been baffled by the absence of cancer in African and Asian elephants.  Recently, two independent research efforts have uncovered the reason for this.  In simple terms, most species have a gene, TP53 (known as the “guardian of the genome”), which attacks damaged genes and keeps them from replicating.  Cancer is an example of damaged genes growing, causing tumors and infecting large areas of their host, human or otherwise.  Elephants, as it turns out, have 20 copies of this gene whereas humans have one copy.  Researchers believe that this unusual abundance of TP53 is responsible for the resistance elephants have to cancer.  Now, they are examining ways in which elephant DNA may be introduced into humans to help our species be more resistant to cancer.  For a more detailed description of this research, click here.  (The full scientific report is 028522.full.)

Cancer comes in many forms.  All of us are familiar with its devastating effect. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory is a form of social cancer that has spread across all of Africa and parts of Asia.  This week’s carnage in Paris is symbolic of another virulent social cancer — terrorism — a disease which has destroyed not only lives but also the quality of life for millions of people.

We seem to be at a crossroads in our global society regarding how to value life.  Terrorists, be they criminal networks responsible for wildlife trafficking or radical malcontents responsible for the death and displacement of millions, have one thing in common — they value their own selfish interests over the value of life, human, elephant or otherwise.  The great majority of us want to find solutions, but feel helpless, frustrated and often discouraged.

Put in this context, the solution to elephant poaching is fairly straight forward:  end the demand for ivory trinkets and the terrorists (those who kill animals illegally are indeed terrorists) will go elsewhere to fund their greed and warped agendas.  Killing all the poachers won’t end it; arresting all the existing traffickers won’t end it.  Others will replace them as long as there is a market for it.  So ending this war could be almost bloodless.

The terrorism of ISIL, Al Qaeda and others is less straight forward and will almost necessarily be bloody.  But killing won’t erase the roots of the rise of this terrorism.  We need fundamental changes in economies, tolerance and political policy before we can even begin to combat this terrorism. This will take some time and very wise, brave and open minded leaders — in many countries — before Paris 11/13, US 9/11, and all the other unconscionable acts of terrorism become less and less likely.  Perhaps elephant DNA will find its way into our bloodstream first.  In any event, let us all pray for less violence against all species on this planet we share.



A Crushing Experience


Watching — and listening to — a full-grown, adult elephant walk by is an incredible experience.  At five to six tons, an elephant makes almost no noise when strolling across open territory — a remarkable feat when you consider the crushing weight each step places upon whatever is underfoot. The elephant´s foot is formed in such a way that it is essentially walking on tiptoe, with a tough and fatty part of connective tissue for the sole. This spongy “shock absorber” helps an elephant to move silently.

It may also surprise you to know that the United States remains an enormous market for illegal elephant ivory.  The U.S. is second only to China in terms of the market for illegal wildlife products, such as rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory.  Later this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to destroy its stockpile of ivory — six tons of ivory objects seized upon entry into the U.S. since the late 1980s when ivory trade was banned. Blaming increased demand for a devastating rise in poaching, largely by organized crime syndicates, the Administration wants to send a message of zero tolerance and reduce the appeal of illicit animal products.  (Click here for full story.)

Working with conservation organizations, the USFWS plans to crush the ivory, then use it to build memorials around the country against poaching. (Hopefully, they will mix the ivory with other materials like concrete so that the memorials aren’t prone to theft).  I am anxious to know more about the plans for such memorials as many Americans remain complacent about ivory and the plight of the elephants.  Too often, we are under the impression that this is a problem in Africa and Asia, but not here in the U.S.  Let this be a wake-up call that our markets are part of the problem, and inspire us to help crush the demand for ivory and the poaching that feeds that demand.



Crooked Tusks

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Tusks are teeth. Elephants and their ancestors developed these elongated incisors for a variety of reasons, from digging dirt for salt and water and pealing bark for food to establishing themselves as the dominant male in the presence of females.  Both male and female African elephants have tusks.  Among Asian elephants, only males develop tusks.  Tusks come in all shapes and sizes; and elephants tend to be either right-tusked or left-tusked, just as we humans are left- or right-handed.  Tusks become visible in young elephants when they are 2 to 3 years old and continue to grow for the remainder of an elephant’s life.  Elephants do not shed their tusks at various stages in life.  If a tusk is broken, it does not grow back.  Like our teeth, tusks can be crooked.  This elephant lives in Kenya’s Masai Mara.  Her one tusk is particularly crooked, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of a healthy life.  Her young calf, below, is just “sprouting” tusks; too soon to tell if baby has inherited mama’s crooked teeth!


And speaking of inherited traits, scientists have noted that the average size of elephant tusks has decreased since the 19th century.  Since elephants with the largest tusks have always been prized by hunters and poachers alike, those with the genetic disposition for large tusks have been substantially removed from the breeding population by now.  Some posit that nature may be playing a hand in today’s elephants’ smaller tusks in another way, suggesting that elephants are such intelligent creatures that large tusks may no longer be the aphrodisiac they once were for wise female elephants.

In any event, if you see ivory in any market, anywhere in the world today, you should assume that it is poached or “crooked” ivory, even if it grew in straight.  And to that end, there is now 5 tons less crooked ivory on the market as the Philippine government demolished that amount this past week.  (Click here for the details.)

A Tale of Two Tusks

2012  will likely go down in history as the worst year ever for elephant poaching.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

CBS Evening News on November 26, in it’s report “Kenya Takes Drastic Steps to Save Elephants,” tells of some unorthodox steps being taken to save a bull elephant with particularly large tusks.  Mountain Bull is a legend in his territory near Mt. Kenya.  He has been shot by poachers numerous times but managed to survive. Many of the large tusked elephants have been killed by poachers and conservationists are worried that Mountain Bull’s time is running out, given the great price his tusks would command on the black market.  Working with the Kenyan government, the Northern Rangelands Trust and park rangers tracked Mountain Bull until they could immobilize him with a drug-filled dart. Then, with a chainsaw, they removed most of his tusks.  While this may put him at a competitive disadvantage with other bull elephants when fighting over females and territories, authorities hope that poachers will lose interest in Mountain Bull — permitting him to live a long life, even if the quality is diminished somewhat.
At some point in time, the government will destroy his tusks.

This is no long term solution for the elephant population at large, although the tactic has also been employed on rhino (removing their horn) in certain parts of Africa.  It is a sad statement about current affairs if we must disfigure an animal to protect it.  The only long term solution is to eliminate demand for ivory.  This is something we can all help accomplish.  Let the tuskers keep their tusks — and live.

Elephant Voices

An elephant that speaks Korean?  The New York Times reports  (click here)  there is a young male elephant (at the Everland Zoo in South Korea) that can speak Korean by putting his trunk in his mouth.  Alone for the first seven years of his life, his need to socialize was so great that he began to imitate certain words spoken by his handlers.

While learning or imitating human languages may be possible, the incredible ability elephants have to communicate with each other over great distances is even more remarkable.  Dr. Joyce Poole has been studying elephant communications for more than three decades.  Her organization, Elephant Voices, is an exceptional source of information on all aspects of how these creatures communicate with each other in a variety of situations.

Elephants in a herd recognize the “voice” of their fellow elephants, as well as the meaning of the sound made by that individual.  Some elephant sounds are two octaves below the level which humans can hear.  Such low sounds can travel great distances, up to several miles.  In savannah environments, during evening and morning temperature inversions, elephants can reportedly hear other elephants up to six miles or  10 kilometers away.  What’s more, an elephant can determine the location and distance of another elephant’s call.

Elephants produce an enormous range of sounds.  Poole reports:  “In normal human speech, the vibration rate may vary over a 2:1 ratio, in other words over one octave, while a singer’s voice may have a range of over two octaves. By contrast, the fundamental frequency within a single elephant call may vary over 4 octaves, starting with a rumble at 27 Hz and grading into a roar at 470 Hz! Including the harmonics elephant calls may contain frequencies ranging over more than 10 octaves, from a low of 5 Hz to a high of over 10,000 Hz. Imagine a musical composition with some operatic elephants!”  Click here to hear a few elephant voices and learn more!

Elephant Ears

Did you know that an African elephant’s ears are up to 1/6 the size of their entire body surface?  No wonder that their ears, along with their amazing trunk, are their signature physical feature.  Elephants have the ability to hear sounds at lower frequencies than many other mammals, including humans.  Able to emit low rumblings, they can communicate with each other over great distances.  But that has more to do with their head size and inner ear workings than the external ear’s size.

The ears play a more critical role in an elephant’s survival — regulating body temperature.  African and Asian elephants occupy some of the hottest habitats in the world.  If you look closely at an elephant’s ears, particularly on the back side, you will see  a distinct network of blood vessels.  As the ears are flapped or sprayed with water (compliments of the trunk), blood flowing through the ears is cooled and in turn cools the rest of the body as it flows throughout the elephant’s system. Scientists have determined that under normal conditions, ear-flapping is sufficient for 100% of the animal’s heat-loss requirements.  Asian elephants, who tend to live in forested areas rather than the savannah, have smaller ears as they are less exposed to the sun and, theoretically, less hot.

As an added bonus, each ear is distinct enough to help people who study elephants identify individuals.  Over an elephant’s lifetime, the edges of the ear accumulate tatters and tears, scars and wounds — all from everyday life in the bush.  In addition to these natural “piercings,” the pattern of the blood veins prominent in their ears is as unique to each elephant as fingerprints are to humans.  These distinguishing features facilitate our ability to study and better understand individual behavior.  So here’s to the ears!