What does a baby elephant have in common with a baby human? Actually, quite a lot. One of those things, and something we don’t often consider when we think about how to save elephants in the wild is the strong correlation between the odds of a human baby surviving and the rate of poaching in a community.
This makes sense when you think about it because infant mortality strongly correlates with poverty. The places in the world where high numbers of infants and children die are the very same places burdened by extreme poverty. What does poverty have to do with poaching? Everything.
Right now in east Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania in particular, the elephant population is under assault. After a few years of decline poaching is once again on the rise; fueled by poverty, accomplished with high-tech weaponry, and increasingly supported by international crime. At the current rate, we may well see the complete loss of wild elephants in our lifetime. For me, that would be one of humanity’s greatest failings. The idea that we could annihilate one of the most amazing animals ever to walk the planet is beyond heart-rending. I don’t mean to elevate the plight of elephants above other threatened animals – the human species is on a roll as far as wiping out other species in record time – but honestly? I simply love elephants and find them endlessly fascinating. They have an intelligence, a social structure, and a presence that is so powerful that if you ever get the chance to be near a wild elephant you will be forever changed. I will resist the urge to list everything I find remarkable about elephants, and instead I will suggest a couple of my favorite books at the bottom of this post if you want to learn more.
So what about the poverty connection? In rural east Africa, many people live on less than $1.25 a day. Most villagers are subsistence farmers who depend upon the land to feed their families. Imagine you are barely eking out a living with kids to feed and the rains come late, or the crop fails, or a child gets sick – and there is very little recourse to make ends meet. Very little, as in none. Rural villagers have very few ways of generating cash, and sadly poaching is one of those ways. Right now, in some parts of Tanzania and Kenya, in communities where poverty is extreme and there are no other foreseeable means to earn what is relatively a lot of money, poaching has become an attractive proposition.
As horrible as poaching is, I think it is really important for us living in wealthy nations not to judge our fellow man too harshly. It is too simplistic to think, “How can they kill those amazing animals!?” and cast Africans as heartless people different from ourselves. It is all too easy to judge others when you have opportunities to feed and care for your family. Blind condemnation is pointless and doesn’t help the elephants or the humans involved. I suggest we take a moment to consider the fact that we do not live with wild animals in our daily midst. We have lost contact with Nature in a way that allows us to romanticize it. Most of us are so far removed from having a wild animal threaten us, have a predator kill our cattle, or an elephant destroy our entire food crop that we can not connect with that reality. A deer or two munching on the roses, a couple of raccoons in the trash is about as much wildlife as we normally encounter. Elephants are huge. Massive and powerful. Watch an elephant push over a tree that an excavator can’t budge and you will have a new respect for their strength. They can be dangerous, deadly dangerous, and they can and do destroy fields and crops at a rate you can not imagine.
Most of us come to conservation and our desire to “Save the Elephant” from a well-meaning place. It is a heartfelt impulse, but we really need to try to understand the challenges that the people living with elephants face. Over here in the developed world, we can afford a kind of elitist approach to wildlife conservation. We can be emotional and romantic about conservation without considering the often harsh reality on the other side. Please don’t misunderstand! I am a total sentimental sap about elephants, but I have traveled in Uganda where entire crops have been destroyed in a night and hunger is all too real. I have been in Tanzania where the temptation of money is hard to resist. And sadly, the last time I was in Kenya, a woman went out to collect firewood and was horribly and purposefully attacked and killed by a rogue male in musth. These are very real situations.
Also real, are the people like the dedicated rangers at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust located outside Nairobi and in Umani Springs Kenya. The Sheldrick Trust is made up of supporters, donors, and rangers who rescue baby elephants orphaned by poaching and raise them and reintroduce them to wild herds. The rangers work tirelessly to combat poaching, pour their hearts into raising these babies and getting them integrated to a herd – knowing full well the dangers the elephants face once returned to a wild. If you ever get a chance to visit the Sheldrick Center or are looking for a way to support this worthy cause, please do so! There are also many people in local communities who do understand that wildlife – and elephants in particular – have economic benefits and draw in much-needed tourist dollars.
Recently, there were several articles in the news about the rise in elephant poaching. Sadly, Tanzania – a wonderful and beautiful country, now leads the world in illegal ivory exports. Where does this ivory end up? Mostly China, but also the good ole USA. One of the many horrifying things about poaching is the disparity in the amount paid to the poacher, about $45 dollars a pound, versus the wholesale price of over $2000 a pound that ivory commands on the black market. You read that right, wholesale price. In some areas, educating poachers about how they are being taken advantage of and then retraining them as rangers or in another capacity has shown success. There are dedicated rangers, who were once poachers themselves, and they now put their lives on the line to protect elephants every day. We also need to curtail the demand side of the market. Some studies cite that over 60% of women purchasing ivory in Hong Kong or China do not know that the animal is killed to collect the ivory. Customers have been told elephants shed their tusks. It also seems that the several government-sanctioned sales of confiscated ivory have not reduced demand, in fact, evidence shows that those sales have made things worse by flooding the market with more ivory so that poached ivory is easier to hide.
In areas of west and central Africa, there are various programs being tested to see how to combat the damage elephants can wreak on crops. Uganda is trying economic supports – funds for destroyed crops – while Botswana is having success using chili peppers to keep elephants at bay. However, the bottom line remains – where poverty rates are lower, infant mortality rates are lower, and poaching rates are lower. One way to combat poverty and counteract the forces that encourage poaching is to support the economic development of rural women and girls. Supporting women and girls lead to many positive outcomes; the chance for outside income, postponed marriage, fewer children per household and, therefore, less habitat encroachment and fewer negative elephant-human encounters. Saving the elephant is going to be complicated and very hard work. The worldwide market demand for ivory, entrenched local poverty and the involvement of international crime syndicates are all working against protecting this amazing creature.
It would be extremely easy to give into despair, but don’t do it, don’t give in! Do the one small thing you can do, whether it’s a donation to a non-profit campaign, writing to your congresswoman, or spending your travel dollars in a way that supports local people and wildlife. Do your one thing – it really does matter. And perhaps, if we want to save the elephant from extinction, if we value the creature more than the trinkets and baubles, jewelry and elaborate carvings made from ivory, then perhaps what we need to do long term is not set up another park or game preserve. Maybe what we really need to do is figure out what the early death of babies can tell us about the demise of the African elephant. Maybe those two highly intelligent, highly sensitive and highly social animals can share one planet. If we want to save the baby elephant, maybe we need to think about the human child as well? To lose either is simply unforgivable.
Learn more or take action:
Few of my favorite books about elephants:
Elephant Memories: Thirteen Yeats in the Life of an Elephant Family by Cynthia J. Moss July 15, 2000
Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants by Katy Payne Sept 1, 1999
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick June 25, 2013