The Demise of the African Elephant: On the Road to Extinction

14 Dec
by Kat Nickerson 2009

by Kat Nickerson 2009

This blog is about the African elephant and its perilous future in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have been on several safaris in Kenya in the past few years where I followed wild herds of African elephants and each journey holds a special place in my heart- beyond memorable. My two best adventures occurred in Tsavo National Park and Amboseli National Park both located in Kenya where I was allowed to take hours of film and photographs of various herds roaming the savannahs there. I have posted two favorite pictures of a bull elephant and the rest of the herd  taken on the Maasia Mara.

by K Nickerson

by K Nickerson

There are two species of elephant: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. The African elephant has also been dived into two sub-species: the savannah and the forest elephant. Savannah elephants live out on the flat, grass-covered plains such as the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania. Savannah elephants are most numerous and are found in 37 countries south of the Sahara Desert while the forest elephant populates the dense rain forests of West and Central Africa. According to a current study from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign recently published in the Journal of PLos Biology. After studying samples of the elephants’ DNA, Alfred Rocca, lead scientist for the group, maintains that these two sub-species are vastly different from one another- as different as the Asian elephant is to the Wooly Mammoth.

No matter its origin, the elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. Female elephants live together with their babies and young children in herds with the oldest and wisest matriarch (female leader) in charge. Male elephants are allowed to live in the herd until they become adolescents (12-15 years) then are made to leave to roam their home ranges alone. The bulls will visit the herd from time to time in order to mate with the females and may stay with the herd for a while but eventually they return to their solitary way of life. I have seen male elephants meet at a water hole in Tsavo in the evening where they shuffle from side to side welcoming one another with their trucks raised as they emit a series of low rumbling sounds. They detect these vibrations through their feet, skin, and trunks but as soon as they’re done drinking off they go- all by themselves again. I have also seen groups of three to four bulls roaming the preserve together during the day but eventually they separate and each one goes his own way. The bull elephant’s ability to exist alone in some of the most perilous places on Earth gives you some idea just how powerful an adult male elephant must be. No other animal- even lions can take down a bull elephant in the prime of his life and rarely try unless they are desperately hungry. Even then, it would be the lions that would fare the worst in the ensuing battle. A bull elephant can accurately be described as the king of his domain.

Elephant herds move around using regular migration patterns that were established many years ago usually built around access to water holes and availability of food. These routes have been traveled the same way for hundreds of years. It is the matriarch who recalls this route best and leads her family through the yearly migration path. Elephants may remain at one site for a time but eventually move on traveling through their home range year after year in a very predictable course. Home ranges can vary; they may be as small as 24 square miles or as large as 6,000 square miles. Elephants do not recognize country boundaries so many herds cross national borders in their attempt to complete these migration treks. Their long treks between countries has made it very difficult for scientists to get an accurate read on the total number of savannah elephants and identifying the entire population of forest elephants has been a much more difficult venture . Herds of forest elephants are well hidden by the dense underbrush of the tropical rainforests and covered by a dense canopy of trees.

There are three things that are responsible for the African elephant’s move towards complete extinction: 1.) an ever increasing human population, 2.) the harmful effects of climate change, and 3.) criminal poaching ventures.

Encroachment by Humans
Amazingly, a recent Population Reference Bureau Report released in September, 2013 predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa will record the world’s largest population growth from 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion people between 2013 and 2050. By the year 2050 the current population in Africa will have more than doubled by 1.3 billion people making Sub-Saharan Africa the largest growing region in the world. If these predictions are correct Sub-Saharan Africa will overtake the continent of Asia with the highest rate of population growth. In the past, Sub-Saharan Africa’s numbers had not increased significantly due to the high number of HIV/AIDS deaths as well as high infant mortality rates. But improvements in access to health care and medicine around the area has been credited with creating a larger population that is living longer than ever before. According to the report, women in sub-Saharan Africa still average 5.2 children during their lifetime, compared to 1.6 in Europe and 1.9 in North America.

As the human population increases throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, people will need more land upon which to build their houses and establish their gardens and fields. That means that the elephants will get less and less of the same area to roam. The home range of the African elephant has been reduced by 20% over the last decade due to human expansion. In Rwanda, a country equivalent in size to the state of Maryland, the elephant population of 100 animals is expected to decrease over the next 20 years, while the human population of 7.5 million is estimated to more than double during the same time period.

And if the predictions concerning Sub-Saharan Africa prove true, a record number of human beings will continue to take land away from the wild elephant herds and in the not so distant future wild elephants will lose all access to their traditional migration paths. Even now this dilemma has pitted farmer against elephant in an all-out war as the herds continue to follow their annual migration routines despite changes in the land. Elephants have been credited with stampeding over houses and eating entire harvests leaving the subsistence farmers in their wake homeless and hungry as a result. In response, farmers have turned on the elephant by poisoning local water holes and maiming elephant herds that come too close to their villages and fields. Elephants have nasty tempers and continue to kill human beings every year. In 2010 an American woman living in Kenya was trampled to death along with her baby while on a hiking tour just outside of Nairobi.

In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a wildlife toolkit to help African farmer’s protect their crops from wildlife looking to eat or destroy their crops. They were encouraged to do things like shoot the elephants with Ping-Pong balls, make and throw dung bricks, as well as create beehive fences to keep marauding elephants from destroying their property. Seems elephants are afraid of bees and even the sight of their hives is enough to keep them at bay. According to the FAO the annual cost of elephant raids to crops ranges from $60 dollars US to a farmer in Uganda to $510 dollars US to one living in Cameroon.

At best this is a feeble attempt by the UN to stem a monumental problem. Eventually there will just be too many people occupying the land and no room for the herds of wild elephants to roam. And no amount of Ping-Pong balls will solve the real problem! Penning wild elephants together is not the solution either. Results of wildlife studies have concluded that wild African elephants do not adjust well to changes in their migration routines. Females are directly influenced by habitat conditions and population densities so birth rates can severely decrease in high density or nutritionally stressed herds. Wild herds were not meant to live in close proximity to one another and can become anxious and unsettled even hostile when forced to live too close to other groups.

Climate Change
In a study commissioned by the World Bank, researchers concluded that from a global perspective the world is headed for “average temperatures 4 degrees (Celsius) warmer than pre-industrial times by the end of this very century.” Food security will be the overarching challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa, with additional dangers from droughts, flooding, and drastic shifts in rainfall.

The report also stipulated that climate change will not affect all countries of the world equally. Some of these destructive effects will be experienced by the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa which in turn will affect their food supplies, individual economies, and coastal regions, while limiting arable land and fresh water. These nations will be less able to adjust to these hardships producing an increasingly unstable environment, which in turn could promote wars between struggling countries and peoples.

The 1.5°C-2°C warming in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to bring about increased droughts and higher aridity causing farmers to lose between 40 to 80% of the fields where maize, millet, and sorghum were traditionally grown. This is expected to take place during the 2030s and 2040s. By 2080 annual precipitation should decrease by about 30% in southern Africa, while East Africa will see more rainfall. Entire ecosystems will change and many types of grasslands will turn into woodland savannas instead decreasing access to pastoral ranges needed by livestock and savannah elephants. What will become of the wild African elephant when their home ranges flood in the east but dry up in the south and their current ecosystems drastically change?

According to Dr. Richard Leakey, world renowned wildlife expert, “climate change is a bigger threat to elephants, tigers, and the rhinoceroses than poaching. In pre-industrial times, animals threatened by these changes could simply have migrated, but human development on their lands means that this option has largely disappeared.”

As with many crises in Central and East Africa one is never too sure just who the good guys are and nowhere does this seem more apparent than when applied to the current poaching situation that has escalated to outrageous proportions in Sub-Saharan Africa. I would like to tell you that the poaching situation as it currently exists is all the work of terrorists and criminals- and to some extent this is true; but when the entire history of the regulation of ivory is examined it makes for a far more complicated and confusing story than that.

First of all the African elephant has come close to extinction before and the ivory trade has steadily grown since the 1940s. In the 1960s, raw ivory cost between $3 and $10 per pound but by 1975, the price had risen to $50 and by 1987, it was $125 per pound. By this decade there was also a newer manufacturing procedure in place in the Orient that allowed for the mass production of ivory carvings for the first time. This, in turn, led to a rising demand in Asia and an increase in poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa. From 1979 to 1987, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, (in that order,) were the primary buyers of raw ivory.

The herd population increased during the first few decades of the twentieth century; especially during World War I and II when the world powers were too busy killing one other to hunt elephants. But then the wars ended  and after a few more peaceful decades during which these same African countries were engaged in fighting for their own independence from European control the herds began to be overhunted again mostly by rich, white hunters in search of safari trophies. While African elephants have been hunted for several centuries, the mass killing of elephant herds as a business started in the 1970s. By the end of the 1970’s it was obvious that something had to be done so the first world ban on elephant ivory was put in place and it seemed a fairly successful ruling until a resurgence in poaching occurred in the 1980’s.

By all estimates, the elephant population in Sub-Saharan Africa decreased from about 1.2 million to 600,000 animals in the 1980’s. Kenya alone lost almost all of its wild elephant herds to poachers during this decade. By 1986, approximately 75% of all raw ivory for sale on the international market had originated from illegal sources –amounting to the tusks of 89,000 elephants. Furthermore, sanctions imposed on smugglers were not nearly severe enough to stop the poaching from occurring. For example, a truck owner was fined only the equivalent of $3,000 for transporting 2 tons of illegal ivory to an East African port.

Threatened with extinction again in the 1980’s, elephant ivory was banned from international trade by the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but there were also two sanctioned sales of ivory stocks to China and Japan in 1999 and again in 2007. And sadly in November 2002, delegates from both the United Nations and the United States attending the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Chile agreed to ease the 13 year old global ban on ivory by allowing one-time exemptions to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to sell off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of ivory culled from elephants who had died of natural causes in their national parks although the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe were denied their request to do the same. The UN delegation heartily endorsed this agreement while the country of Kenya begged them to reconsider their position. Many delegates were horrified by the lift on the ban warning that the glut of ivory on the far-eastern market would rekindle international poaching endeavors once again. Teresa Telecky, a delegate representing the US Humane Society at that time aptly predicted that the ‘legal sales of ivory would revive the previously dormant black market for ivory.” And she was right.

Carl Safina, an environmental writer, blamed the recent rebound in elephant poaching after years of progress in the 1990s and early 2000s on the UN and US delegations as well. After passing an ivory ban in 1989, CITES delegates led by the UN and US delegations voted to relax the rules again  in 2008, allowing previously stockpiled ivory to be sold in China. This provided a legitimate cover for illegal ivory smugglers, and according to Safina, “up to 90 % of ivory sold in China now comes from newly- killed elephants.”

At the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand, Joyce Poole co-director of Elephant Voices stated that Sub-Saharan Africa had sustained “its worst year yet.  More than 7% of all its wild elephants were killed in 2013 alone- and that translates to 40, 000 elephants. And now anyone with a decent rifle can join in the hunt. Terrorist groups like al- Shaaab working in Kenya out of Somalia, The Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, the Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as the Janjaweed of the Darfur region in Western Sudan have all taken to poaching ivory and opened new trade routes in order to finance their operations. And if that were not bad enough, the military in certain African countries has turned to poaching in order to subsidize personal endeavors as well.

In August, 2013, M23 rebels accused government soldiers from the DR Congo of selling guns to elephant poachers. My sources tell me it was common knowledge in the area at that time. And the best one, in September 2012, soldiers serving in the Ugandan Army (Ugandan Peoples Defense Force) who had been assigned to protect the eastern section of the DR Congo were accused of killing 22 elephants in the Garamba National Park using a helicopter to gain access to the herd. It was determined that 15 of the 22 animals had been “expertly” shot in the head from up above. The Ugandan soldiers denied these allegations but the park rangers were convinced it was the Ugandan army stating that “the UPDF operated the only helicopter that flew over the park.”

And in the End….

When the tusk of one African elephant can earn an African poacher a year’s salary desperate men resort to killing elephants in order to feed their families. So what will it take to save the elephant? Whether the African elephant herds can survive in spite of smaller home ranges, climate change, and poachers remains to be seen but this will only happen if the world comes together in an organized way to create a viable plan to save them. It is true that terrorists now threaten the herds but even if they disappeared tomorrow the wild African elephant would still be well on its way to extinction. There must be an international plan in place before things like human encroachment and climate change even begin to  jeopardize the elephants’  existence. If not, how will we ever explain to our children that we stood by and watched as the mighty African elephant disappeared from the face of the Earth? It’s good to be back.

Kat Nickerson                         Kingston, RI                                                    December 11, 2013


3 Responses to “The Demise of the African Elephant: On the Road to Extinction”

  1. Buddy2Blogger December 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on Sherlockian's Blog and commented:
    Please help save one of Nature’s gentle giants.

  2. GarryRogers December 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Hi Kat,
    I pinned and scooped your post. View the scoop here: Thank you for your concern and the informative article.

  3. susandorling January 15, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Reblogged this on Sunny Side Up and commented:
    This exceptionally comprehensive piece is essential reading for elephant-lovers and anyone who is gravely concerned about the demise of the African elephant. Posted by Kat of the amazing blog, Kat’s Africa, who has been up close and personal with these magnificent creatures during several safaris over the past two years in their homeland of Kenya.

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