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The African Elephant

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

The African Elephant, and also my Totem Animal.

The African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis) is declining over several decades due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is critically endangered and the African Savana Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) is Endangered on the Threatened Species List.

Both species have suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten populations. The ongoing conversion of their habitats, primarily to agricultural and other land uses, is another significant threat. The 2016 IUCN African Elephant Status Report provides the most recent reliable estimate of the continental population of the two species combined, at around 415,000 elephants.

Despite the overall declining trend of both African elephant species, the assessments also highlight the impact of successful conservation efforts. Anti-poaching measures on the ground, together with more supportive legislation and land use planning which seeks to foster human-wildlife coexistence, have been key to successful elephant conservation. As a result, some forest elephants have stabilised in well-managed conservation areas in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Savanna elephant numbers have also been stable or growing for decades, especially in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which harbours the largest subpopulation of this species on the continent.

“For these assessments, a team of six assessors used data from as far back as the 1960s and a fully data-driven modelling approach to consolidate the decades-long efforts of many survey teams for the first time. With persistent demand for ivory and escalating human pressures on Africa’s wild lands, concern for Africa’s elephants is high, and the need to creatively conserve and wisely manage these animals and their habitats is more acute than ever,” said Dr. Kathleen Gobush, lead assessor of the African elephants and member of the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.
According to WWF: We’ve all seen photographs of majestic elephants sporting long, off-white tusks on either side of their trunks. This ivory is both beautiful on the animals and essential to the species’ survival. But what exactly is it? Ivory tusks are actually massive teeth that protrude well beyond the mouths of elephants. Like our own teeth—and those of many mammals—these tusks are deeply rooted. Much of the tusk is made up of dentine, a hard, dense, bony tissue. And the whole tusk is wrapped in enamel, the hardest animal tissue and the part of the tusk that manages the most wear and tear.

Elephant tusks evolved from teeth, giving the species an evolutionary advantage. They serve a variety of purposes: digging, lifting objects, gathering food, stripping bark from trees to eat, and defence. The tusks also protect the trunk—another valuable tool for drinking, breathing, and eating, among other uses. Just as humans are left or right handed, elephants, too, are left tusked or right tusked. The dominant tusk is usually more worn down from frequent use.
Behind every piece of ivory—whether it be a full tusk or carved trinket—is a dead elephant. Poachers kill about 20,000 elephants every single year for their tusks, which are then traded illegally in the international market to eventually end up as ivory trinkets.

They’re calling on all governments—and particularly those of demand countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States—to strengthen law enforcement, invest in more boots on the ground and commit to long-term elephant ivory demand reduction efforts.

As a generation, we need to educate loudly about what it means to wear, use or own an Ivory trinket, by education maybe we can lessen the desire or demand.
I love the story in Laos of the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) as there are around 800 elephants left in Laos. About 400 in the wild and 400 in captivity. Of this population, only a small percentage of females are still capable of breeding, due to the lack of breeding opportunities given to them while they are working. Because of this, about 10 elephants die annually for every 1-2 elephants born. With these numbers, it is predicted that the elephant population in Laos could disappear in the next 20-30 years. In an attempt to prolong the existence of this iconic species, the ECC has been working to increase the birth rates in Laos.

The centre began as a nursery for all pregnant logging elephants to come and rest through their pregnancy, as well as the vital years of breastfeeding. Elephants are pregnant for 18-22 months. During the last year of pregnancy, an elephant cannot work, as well as the next 3-4 years of breastfeeding. Because of this, many mahouts stopped breeding their elephants, which resulted in reproductive issues for many retired logging elephants in the current population.

The baby bonus program allowed mahouts to breed their elephants without financial concerns. Once the logging industry had almost come to an end, the centre decided to begin a breeding program. Perfecting this program proved challenging. A female elephant is only in heat for a few days every four months.

The centre has invested in this program further, with the help of the Smithsonian Institute and the Australian Embassy in Laos, to train a biologist in endocrinology and set up a lab for all hormone research to be done in house. This breeding program is not meant to breed more elephants into captivity, but to conserve the species through reintegration back into the wild.

Elephants, the great grey shapers of forests and savannas, maintain biodiversity. Without them, a host of other species, including humans, may be lost as well. Elephants are referred to as ecosystem ‘engineers’, ‘architects’, or ‘gardeners.’ This is because they shape, build and rejuvenate natural landscapes. Elephants foraging on vegetation replenishes the structure of plant communities, and these, in turn, influence the food supply for a host of animals from mammals to insects.

The Elephant is the spiritual messenger and sacred oracle; regularly sought out by the animals for guidance, she settles disputes without bias. She has an enduring memory, she is loyal and has a sense of obligation. We would not be reminded about the duty to our promises and commitments along with the lack of responsibility. Our societal obligations would be forgotten.

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