The largest living land animal: the African elephant, Loxodonta Africana; now listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). This mother and calf were part of a 20-strong herd that I filmed and photographed in September 2016 in the Madikwe Reserve, on the South Africa-Botswana border.
That should probably read “problems”. Not only are elephants heavily and mercilessly poached across Southern, Central and Eastern Africa, but their migration patterns are also being disrupted by infrastructure projects, and we are only just coming to realise the very real and devastating effect that climate change is having on the species.
From a population of over 13 million at the end of the nineteenth century, we – that is to say, mankind – has brought that number down to perhaps as few as 400,000. On average, one elephant is killed for its ivory every 15 minutes. That’s 4 an hour. Close to 100 a day. Upwards of 30,000 a year. Much of the slaughter is carried out to meet demand for ivory products in the Far East and Middle East, where they are considered symbols of status and wealth.
So I can count myself lucky, at least, that the only wild elephants I saw in Madikwe were live ones. Any number of conservationists, rangers, and increasingly tourists, have harrowing experiences to relate – of stumbling across half-eaten, bullet-ridden carcasses, tusks hacked out by poachers’ machetes or chainsaws. The Madikwe reserve has its own problems with poaching – and they’re not limited to elephants. Such is the extent of the problem affecting Africa’s southern white rhinos that their numbers in Madikwe are not even disclosed to many of the rangers; only to a closed circle of individuals. If we don’t act now, and decisively, elephants will be heading the same way. If current rates of poaching continue, they’ll be critically endangered in 10 years, perhaps even on the verge of extinction. And that’s shameful.
Of course, the plight of Africa’s elephants is well documented. Two of the most prescient documentaries I’ve watched in the past six months have been Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s exposé of illegal ivory trade flows from Africa to the Far East and Gordon Buchanan’s equally moving, if slightly more uplifting, Elephant Family and Me.
They showed, as I have seen for myself, a gentle, caring, emotional species that is being pushed to the edge of extinction by human short-sightedness and greed. Both presenters were faced with shocking examples of what people do to Africa’s wildlife. One of the first scenes in Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme showed him, alongside anti-poaching patrols, discovering a mutilated rhino carcass in southern Africa. So when Buchanan came across an elephant with a wicked, barbed snare around one of its feet, I wasn’t all that shocked, but it still sickened me. To think that any of the elephants I had seen in Madikwe, young and old, could have a similar experience, is very distressing.
But there is cause for hope.
The Chinese government has already pledged to end China’s ivory trade by the end of this year; Hong Kong is set to do so by 2020. The US has recently enforced a measure to ban ivory products, with important caveats which allow antique ivory products of a certain weight to continue to be traded legally. In early February 2017, the UK’s domestic ivory trade was debated in Westminster Hall by a number of MPs, and, while it remains to be seen whether our government follows in China and Hong Kong’s footsteps, the debate was a move – albeit a small and long overdue one – in the right direction.
If you have a spare few hours, you can watch the parliamentary debate in full here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/81fef046-e287-4dac-b504-fab2b161a552
If you don’t have a few spare hours, I would suggest starting at 17:45:00, or thereabouts.
It’s pretty clear that governments, international organizations and various NGOs will have to lead the way here for long-term, decisive impacts to be made in terms of reducing poaching, as well as protecting elephant habitats from agricultural encroachment and other land use changes. But we all have a role to play. So what can we do as individuals to help Africa’s elephants?
Well, here’s a few ideas:
- Spread the word – Your voice matters! Parliament only discussed the UK ivory trade in February 2017 because 100,000 people signed a petition calling for it to do so. And while much has been said about the merits and drawbacks of such petitions in recent months, they can have an impact. Write to your MP, get talking and raise awareness! https://www.writetothem.com/
- Volunteer – What better way to help protect Africa’s elephants than getting hands-on? Volunteering opportunities are great for gap years, time between jobs or as an alternative to a normal holiday. There’s lots of sites out there, here’s a few: https://www.podvolunteer.org/projects/elephant-research-south-africa; https://www.gapyear.com/volunteering/animals/elephants/list; https://www.gapyear.com/volunteering/animals/elephants/list
- Donate, run a marathon, whatever! – Fundraising for charities can be a great way of getting active (unless Marathon means a chocolate bar before a 26 mile, 385 yard endurance event!), or just doing what you enjoy for a great cause. Bake something, make something, or do something; get friends and family behind you, and help support elephants in the process! No links for this one…let your mind wander, and it’ll stumble across a good idea!
- Go on safari – Again, not for everyone, and a lot of safaris cost an arm and a leg. But it will probably be one of the best experiences of your life! Tourism in sub-Saharan Africa supports wildlife conservation, local communities and economies. The Daily Telegraph recently published this handy list, broken down into safari types, e.g. for those on a tight budget, for solo travellers, etc.: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/safaris-and-wildlife/the-best-safari-holidays/
“We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can and must take moral responsibility for the decisions we make today…most importantly we must [act] together”
HRH, Duke of Cambridge, speaking at a Tusk event in London, September 2016
Here’s some other useful links, if you want to find out more about African elephants, or if you’d like some additional ideas about how you can go about helping them:
Thanks for reading. As ever, any comments or suggestions are very welcome!