Living Dinosaurs

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Could elephants really become extinct in our lifetimes?  Media coverage is now referring to elephants as “living dinosaurs.”  An oxymoron? Not really. More of a prediction.

A grim future for elephants is suggested when we take a long term look at what has happened over the passed 600 years, using information from the recently released Great Elephant Census:

1500:  Around 26 million elephants are estimated to roam the African continent when Europeans began exploring there.

1900:  In 400 years, the population has been reduced to about 10 million due to aggressive trophy hunting and the ivory trade.  The US consumes 200 tons of ivory a year.

1950s:  250 elephants are killed each day to satisfy demand for ivory.

1979:  Elephants are listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in the US; internationally, CITES is to regulate ivory trade. Ian Douglas Hamilton conducts first pan-African survey, estimating the elephant population at 1.3 million.

1989:  Elephant population halved over last decade with 600,000 remaining.  CITES lists the African elephant on Appendix I, creating a ban on the international trade of ivory.

1990s:  Elephant populations in East Africa begin to recover.

1999:  CITES approves a “one time” sale of ivory from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe ivory stockpiles to Japan. A second sale to China and Japan is permitted in 2008.

2007:  CITES implement 9 year moratorium on ivory sales from stockpiles as the increasing demand for ivory is not satisfied by these sales and leads to dramatic increase in poaching.

2016:  Death rate is one elephant every 15 minutes. Great Elephant Census shows elephant populations at 352,000, down 30% from 2007.

The calculus of this population decline is unassailable.  We will not have healthy, sustainable elephant populations in the wild in our lifetimes if the demand for ivory is not shut down. And, yes, like the dinosaurs who once walked this earth, our present-day largest land mammal could also become extinct.

Thank you to the Great Elephant Census , a partnership between Paul Allen and Vulcan, who provided the funding, Elephants Without Borders, African Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society, TheNature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group.

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International March for Elephants — New York

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Here are some scenes from the International March for Elephants in New York on Friday, October 4.  Many elephant “champions” participated in the walk, which began on the West Side at 12th Avenue and 42nd Street and ended on the East Side at 47th and 1st, in front of the UN.  “Celebrity” participants included Iain Douglas-Hamilton (Save the Elephants), Paula Kahambu (WildlifeDirect), Cyril Christo (photographer, poet, author of  “Walking Thunder”), Bryan Christy (journalist), Christie Brinkley (model, animal activist) and Kristin Davis (actress, spokesperson) — to name a few!  Congratulations to the organizers, led by Joey Cummings, and the many volunteers who worked so hard to make this spectacular show of support for elephants possible. And, thanks to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for organizing the first global demonstration on behalf of an animal.  Walks took place in up to 40  cities around the world.  The level of “noise” is definitely on the increase!

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Mara Elephant Project

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The Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya is perhaps the most famous game reserve in all of Africa.  A rich ecosystem of grassy plains, riverine forests and high escarpments provides  for an abundance of wildlife seen in no other place on earth.  While the annual migration of wildebeests and zebras, with the plethora of predators that feast on the young and feeble, is the draw for many, elephants are also an integral part of the scene.  The Mara does not boast the density of elephants found in certain other game reserves, but it is an important habitat for the savannah elephant.

The Mara is an extension of the Serengeti ecosystem across the border in Tanzania.  For centuries,  Masai tribesmen have herded their cattle and claimed the territory in both countries as theirs.  Because the land is rich, farming is adjacent to and sometimes spills over onto the reserve.  The Mara’s accessibility, natural diversity, international movements of animals and proximity to human settlements combine to make it an ideal laboratory for elephant research.

In 2011, the Escape Foundation, Save the Elephants and the Kenya Wildlife Service joined forces to employ satellite tracking technology to learn more about elephant movement and to address poaching and human-wildlife conflict issues.  The Mara Elephant Project has produced a superb video describing their work, which I highly recommend you view here.

Radio collaring an elephant is no small undertaking, and it is interesting to watch the process on the video.  A warning — there are graphic scenes of poached elephants with their faces hacked off.  Not for the faint of heart.  But this effort is full of big-hearted, committed people from a number of nations and represents in my view a fine example of the type of effort needed in many parts of Africa.  Watch the video, and if you are inclined, contribute to the project.

Samburu Elephants

samburubabySamburu (National Reserve in northern Kenya) is one beautiful expanse of grassy, acacia-covered desert, surrounded by mountains and divided by the palm-fringed Ewaso Ng’iro River.  One of my favorite memories is reflected above.  We came upon a mother elephant, shading a tiny body, which we feared was her dead baby.  As we watched, the still body came to life and up stood her several-day-old child. We all sighed with relief and wiped our teary eyes, happy that the little fellow or lass would have a chance to grow up and learn from his mother.  It was 1987, poaching just outside the Reserve was escalating, elephant populations were stressed, it would not have been a surprise to see a dead elephant.

Samburu elephants have been on my mind this week because of a newly released study by Save the Elephants. Save the Elephants began intensive studies of the 1,000-strong Samburu elephant population 15 years ago.  During most of the study, peaceful times existed, populations recovered from the late ’80s.  Then, in the past three years, poaching once again escalated, death due to poaching doubled.

“. . .Older animals – usually those with larger tusks – fared particularly badly. In 2000 there were 38 known males over 30 years old. By 2011 this number had dropped to 12, of whom 7 had grown into the older age class. Almost half of the known females over 30 years old were lost between 2006 and 2011, their number dropping from 59 to 32. The wave of killing altered the age structure and age-related social organisation. In 1998 42 per cent of the population was male, but by 2011 the bulls – who bear more ivory – made up only 32 per cent. Ten of the fifty elephant groups were effectively wiped out, with no known breeding females left, while thirteen had no breeding female over the age of 25.”

The report goes on to detail how unnatural loss of mature life is threatening the population even further. Without older elephants, the young will not learn survival tactics, how to interrelate to each other, and how to flourish as a community.  Mortality of the young will increase.  The study has had an unusual, and morbid, opportunity to observe and document this impact on Samburu’s individual elephants.  Poaching kills indirectly as well as directly.

For more on Samburu Elephants, view Elephants of Samburu by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols.

Tuskless in Tanzania

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This brown-eyed beauty was born without tusks — a shortcoming perhaps, but not a deformity. I photographed her in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park in 2008.  She was with her two children, both of whom had tusks.  She is unusual only in that Lake Manyara has been known for its large tusked elephants.

Lake Manyara was first introduced to many by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African elephant, and his wife, Oria, both of whom are saints in my book.  They pioneered the first in-depth scientific study of elephant social behavior.  Their books “Among the Elephants” and “Battle for the Elephants” are must-reads!  But back to Tanzania and being tuskless.

Tanzania has been blessed with abundant wildlife and has some of the best elephant habitat in Africa.  Sadly, year-end summaries of illegal ivory seizures in 2012 indicate that a substantial portion is from Tanzania. Experts now apply DNA analysis to contraband ivory and are able to determine country of origin.  Earlier this week, a Member of Tanzania’s Parliament estimated that over 25% of blood ivory is from Tanzania and that 23,000 elephants were slain last year — 67 a day.  Furthermore, he alleged government and police officials are involved in the racket and announced his intentions to launch an inquiry.

I am returning to Lake Manyara in two weeks.  Perhaps I have a good chance of seeing Ms. Tuskless again as she would have no appeal to poachers and her children are still young.  As for many other elephants in Tanzania, being tuskless means being dead.