Ten Ways To Save Elephants
Photo: R. Karthik.
Vivek Menon, conservationist extraordinaire, Executive Director and CEO, Wildlife Trust of India, and Advisor, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), lists 10 ways to save the largest land animal on planet earth.
Elephants have lived through millennia. They, and their now extinct proboscidean ancestors, have undergone droughts, famines, floods, earthquakes, prehistoric hunting, capture, enslavement, tribal conflict, modern slaughter and climate change. They have spanned the earth from the humid swamps of Al Fayyum in Egypt, through the deserts of the Sahel and Namib, through most of today’s temperate Europe and tropical Asia. They must, as survivors, know a million ways to defeat adversity. I have no access, however, to their wisdom and must confine myself to what we, another species with a very different kind of giant footprint, think they want, believe they must feel or know they need in order to survive. These imperatives are vast in scope and broad in concept but are the most critical. For if these are not done by us, then, three, or maybe four species of the world’s largest land creatures will no longer roam terra firma. For them, and for us, these are the top 10 actions we must take to protect the elephant.
Vast and connected homelands
It is only fair that the largest creatures on land require a wee bit of undisturbed space to park themselves and lead their incredibly complex social lives. Given their vast size, they need large quantities of food, and this inevitably translates to vast homelands. Luckily, they are not very selective in their forage and eat a number of plant species ranging from coarse grass to tender shoots. Their herds need to be mapped and adequate (this word is so geographically tied-down that I am not attempting an approximation) habitat must be protected as elephant reserves in order for them to roam. The elephant is not selfish in this want, for under the canopy of its mega charisma can live a million other beasts, large and small that share temporal and ecological niches with it. These vast savannah-woodlands could also be a nation’s natural tourism basket in which humanity can view these gentle giants and other creatures in the wild. These would also be, due to their size, the source of water, air and flora that have their own importance and implications for our natural world. Elephant homelands must necessarily be interconnected and to know why, we must move on to the next point.
Right of passage
Unlike many other mammals, elephants are nomadic in habit. They have to move peripatetically as the food around them is exhausted. It is a tryst that this beast has with the land that it forages on. It moves seasonally, allowing the land to regenerate and revisits its former range only when the bounty of nature is replenished. As it moves, human habitation, linear infrastructure such as highways, irrigation canals, railway lines and the many other cemented symbols of human civilisation intervene. These millennia-old travel routes have then to be abandoned by them, new ones learnt, unfamiliar terrain explored, all of it bringing undesirable interaction between man and a nervous, irritable giant. This would be totally avoidable if these old paths and tracks were respected and left alone, and connecting vital habitats created that provide them long-term security. The right of passage, if denied, to a mostly gentle giant, culminates inevitably in tragedy. Confining them completely is like settling a human nomadic tribe and the challenges of perennially providing food and water to a hungry tenant who has never known how to own or manage land for living. That leads to other tragedies. The best, but perhaps looking at human pragmatism, not the simplest solution is to give them the right of passage.
Photo: by Anuradha Marwah.
The killing of elephants may have started in the Neanderthal times. Reasons were and are varied including human security, food, trinkets, medicine and ornamentation. The animal possesses one of the most stunning pairs of incisors that the animal world produces, tusks that man has considered white gold. The illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks has fuelled an incessant and increasing slaughter of animals making many, if not most populations of elephants insecure. For the populations to survive, the slaughter must disappear and a new feeling of security must emerge. The forest elephants (see page 50), a recently described species of western and central Africa, seem the most threatened in a conservation sense as the killing might even cause its extinction. In other places, closer to home, selective killing is skewing sex ratios, as only Asian males, and only males with larger tusks (highly non-Darwinian selection) is rendering population after population unviable. This one measure is immediate and its short-term urgency precedes every other one in determining the survival of the species.
Reduce human conflict
As human dwellings and livelihoods creep inexorably towards and into wild lands, the encounters between humans and elephants are bound to increase. Under such conditions, man-elephant interaction is more often than not termed man-elephant conflict. In India alone, more than 400 people and 200 elephants die on account of each other, each year. Such is the scale of this conflict, that in some areas of the world, humanity is no longer tolerant of the elephant and in others do not even wish its continued survival. Conflict or revenge killings are overtaking poaching in many parts of the elephant’s range. Three actions need to be taken quickly: 1. Rapid, immediate solutions to ease issues in high conflict areas; 2. Innovative and technological implementation as required for medium-term conflict mitigation and 3. Landscape planning at a national and trans-boundary level to manage long-term conflict. Giving grain-for-grain as relief to small farmers affected by elephants is an example of the first kind of mitigation; using electronic surveillance mechanisms to warn trains of approaching elephants on tracks is a form of the second; and the vast trans-boundary Protected Areas of southern Africa, an ideal for the third.
Photo: Sajid Aboobaker.
Recognise their societies
Elephants are big, intelligent and nomadic. They are also highly social beings. Any human-led management effort that attempts to alter such societies and kinships among elephants is bound to fail. Only long-term studies can lead to better understanding of such clan and kin behaviour and thus informed management. Intervention that removes individual animals against the will of elephant society or translocates groups into unfamiliar terrain splintering their kinship boundaries could result in failure. Keeping animals in solitary captivity is worse than death, and that brings us to the next point.
End their enslavement
Intelligent beings such as Homo sapiens consider capture and enforced enslavement as a brutal, inhumane and often unnecessary source of suffering. Elephants must consider it quite similarly, even if they do not possess the language in which they can convey this to the human species. Several studies have noted exceptional consciousness, cognitive abilities, memory, grief, trauma and joy amongst elephants in the wild and in captivity. There is no reason to believe that they do not undergo pain, suffering and grief. Solitary confinement, which is their lot in many captive situations, is worse than death. Confinement of any sort is undesirable in such a highly emotionally-functioning animal and must be avoided whenever possible.
Understand their needs
Elephants are not laboratory mice to be studied in sterile seclusion (this does not imply that mice should be used for testing) and one must follow the path-breaking efforts of scientists such as Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton who, in the 1960s, forsook the English vales and made elephant habitats his home. Long-term studies of elephants can yield a wealth of information, for managers in particular, and for civilisation as a whole. Other than what one can learn in order to save the species itself, one may learn things that may save us. How elephants regulate their own numbers in natural populations, their adaptations to climate change, their infra-sonic communication and their management of societies may have several lessons for the human race.
Photo: by Abhishek Sharma.
Those who are fortunate to go closer to these beings and learn the secrets of their lives are bound under a natural contract to share it with other human beings. Communicating effectively about elephant lives, elephant traumas and the joys of having elephants among us is vital. Celebrating the latter fact is never done and must be encouraged to rid humanity of the negativity that has in the recent past started surrounding the elephant. Trying out innovative mechanisms of bringing the elephant physically closer to those who don’t live in elephant habitat, and emotionally closer to those who do is key to our ongoing communication.
Admire without harming
If wildlife can only be saved if they are used, as certain philosophies go, then watching animals must surely rank as the best form of non-consumptive utilisation. Watching elephants comes with its own add-ons of incredulous wonder (especially for the youngsters) and gaining serenity (more for the older ones amongst us). This great creature can, through its charisma, draw revenue to the most remote lands acting as a social disbursal agent of wealth. But such tourism must be conducted in a way that the goose (or in this case the elephant; in others the tiger, or gorilla) that lays the golden egg is not killed off in the process. Careful planning of tourism whether conducted by the government or private parties, not necessarily by prefacing with epithets such as ‘eco-tourism’, but by analysing each action and its impact on the animal and its ecosystem is key to its long-term success.
Photo: Rohan Chakravarty.
Respect the elephants
I come, personally, from a culture that worships the elephant. There are many other cultures that do not. I have rarely come across any culture though, that in its tradition does not respect the elephant. I do not think that in their origins, any culture could have afforded to, the elephant being the largest, most omniscient and perhaps most threatening animal that lived around them. It is only in the last century or two that patent disrespect for the animal has taken shape. If we bring back respect for this most gargantuan and wondrous of nature’s creations, it could, in itself, guarantee a future for both man and elephant.
Author: Vivek Menon
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No. 5, October 2013.