On Day Three of the Elephant Summit the attendees were treated to leading edge insights into the natural lives of elephants in the wild. This came directly from the experts who lived in the wild with the animals. There are of course dire problems in the wild, but talking about individual elephants and wildlife habitat feels so much more hopeful and joyful than talking about captive elephants whose natural life behaviors and homes have been ripped away from them.
Much of what we know about natural elephant behavior has come from the Amboseli Research Project in Kenya. Dr. Joyce Poole and her husband Petter Granli pioneered many of the studies at Amboseli dating back to 1975. This past year she wanted to build on what was learned and take it to a different elephant population – in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. In Amboseli the information was gathered by researchers and assistants. Now Joyce and Petter have set up a more inclusive project, involving those already involved in the Mara working as guides, and scouts. All the information does not have to be gathered in a computer.
They chose the Mara population because it is part of the Serengeti Mara Ecosystem, called the Eighth Wonder of the world. It is the biggest tourist area in Kenya. Due to the horrific poaching taking place all over Africa, Joyce says that many populations of elephants won’t make it. The population at the Mara has the best chance. Besides the poaching, the human-elephant conflict is a big problem in this ecosystem. In January alone, 23 elephants were killed there. The Reserve is small compared to the actual area the elephants use. There are many conservancies coming into being on Maasai land. The Maasai people are being paid monthly to use their land. A typical male elephant gets into crop raiding. Arrow wounds on the elephants are more and more common.
The future lies in the hands of the kids. Most see the elephants as big and terrifying. “We will only conserve what we love, only love what we understand, and only understand what we are taught” is one of Joyce’s mottos that she paraphrases from the words of Baba Dioum.
A cell phone ap has been build to help identify elephants in the Mara. Locals have told her, “Elephants are awesome when you are i.d.ing”. It is inspiring people in the Mara, both residents and visitors to work together to protect them. Lodges and camps want to do more to help. As the human population continues to explode, it puts more and more stress on the animals. Elephants learn fast where they are safe. There is a need to keep them moving and safe. Now they are relaxed in some areas and terrified in others. They are concentrating on areas where there is not so much protection—giving cell phones to young herders to get them invested from an early age. They are reaching out to the youth, reaching into schools and targeting young Massai for saving elephants.
Dr. Keith Lindsay mentioned that the Amboseli project is in its 40th year. The approach has always been minimal intervention. Keith says it is impossible to work with them, even as detatched scientists, and not get attached. Everyone in the room understood that and that’s why we were all there.
Dr. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an investigator in the field of elephant communications a Rhode International Fellow studied elephants in Namibia and had another project in Asia. She thanked Pat Derby and Ed Stewart for being her elephant parents and also thanked Colleen Kinzley and one of the Summit coordinators, Curator at the Oakland Zoo for her careful work with her in the field on her Masters. Caitlin works at Stanford now on low frequency hearing in mammals. Elephants vocalize in low frequencies that go long distances. Elephants can communicate with one another miles apart by making subsonic calls that vibrate the ground, researchers established a few years ago. But Caitlin discovered that elephants receiving the calls monitor the vibrating ground through both their feet and trunks.
Her team worked with desert dwellers in Namibia , and there were conflicts with crops and water. Among other devices they were able to use the low rumblings of lions recordings to steer herds in a different direction when they became very invasive to human agriculture. Bulls don’t care so much about predator calls but move quickly when low estrus calls are detected, particularly when they are in musth,which can be used to help move them for their own protection.
Winnie Kiiru is an associate director at the Amboseli project and Director of Conservation Kenya. She learned so much from studying the famous Echo elephant matriarch and her family. She learned how the matriarch guides, protects and makes decisions for her family. The elephants are never alone. They watch the babies play, participate, have fun, and move together. Echo made intelligent decisions about what is safe and not safe for her family and she would walk her family through crises.
To Winnie this is the most essential element of elephants: family. Winnie passionately told us, “Elephants are family, freedom, choice, where to go when to do what to do it when to stop. Everything that removes them away from that level of interaction is a disservice to them. We must start here: see what elephants teach us when we let them be.” She has seen their amazing bonding, celebrating and greeting ceremonies. “This is what I have seen and learned from being in the wild with elephants in Amboseli. We must not forget what elephants are about.”
Winnie spoke of the conflict of elephants outside the park where there are farmers who depend entirely on their crops. Many innovations have been tried and work for a time until the elephant figures it out, such as chili pepper and tobacco on ropes around the crops. She is convinced that the way forward is the involvement of farmers and authorities and that they be made to understand the conservation angle or else they will remain enemies of elephants.
Sharon Neil is a researcher in Tsavo and Voi, Kenya. She talked about the big tusk as being the ”harbinger of death.” And what will become of these baby elephants: poaching, habitat fragmentation, human encroachment, deforestation, livestock overgraze, politics, climate change are all threats. Dwindling waterholes and drought: in the future the continent of Africa will have even more droughts; this is catastrophic for elephants.
Poaching funds war, funds political figures who want to give favors for their own political gain. Black market ivory carving prices have soared form $325 to $1400 a pound. Elephant tusks can reach over 10 feet long weigh over 200 pounds. On the black market that is $63,000 dollars. Then there is table meat: in the past, a train would hit an animal and villagers would get the dead animal and eat. Now elephant meat is sought as the meat and the villager takes off tusks for a rainy day. It is also smoked and sold to a higher echelon of economic strata. Like they used to eat cheetah meat. In 2011 twenty-four tons of ivory were seized by forces: how much got away?
Some anti-poaching strategies include: DNA profiling analyses, migration corridors, community education, bloodhound tracking of poachers, Interpol/traffic/ FBI US Fish and Game;-Law enforcement INTERPOL/ TRAFFIC from the UK stepping up offensive.
Joyce Poole added that sometimes elephants have been moved great distances and they make their way back which makes the mortality rates much higher; they tried to hang out in habitats similar to ones they just came from.
During an inspired discussion with Joyce, Caitlin, Sharon and Colleen it came out that “Endangered Species” should have been labeled “endangered habitats” and then perhaps we would think about the problem more correctly.
We were treated to long clips from Elephant Wars, the exciting documentary starring Dr. Joyce Poole and filmed by her brother, famed cinematographer Bob Poole. In Mozambique Joyce was brought in to use her expertise to calm down elephants suffering from PTSD after a brutal twenty-year war chopped down the majority of their fellow elephant brothers, sisters, mothers, and cousins. In an attempt to rebuild the area for tourism, the elephants had to be helped through their lingering fears, traumas-- and consequent aggression. Elephant Wars will screen on National Geographic television on April 22.
One can hardly think and talk about wildlife without facing alarming facts about the huge threats to their very existence. Hearing about all the seemingly insurmountable problems felt devastating to all the elephant lovers in the room. Joyce Poole has worked in the field for decades and is well aware of all the issues. And yet she tried to end on a positive note. She said that she feels hopeful that we can protect elephants in the wild. She says that although we can’t save every population,” working together can have great success stories.”
On a personal note, we are the elephant keepers. We who love the elephant must keep our eye on the fight and through education and funding and whatever we can do, raise the consciousness of the sleeping masses to wake up and save our precious animal heritage. Elephants are highly evolved beings, and may even be more intelligent than humans. Rather than force them to live for our amusement we can learn so much from them if we allow them to live in their own lifestyles and find ways to respect them and their habitats, and co-exist with them.
Please visit Parts I and II of this story in the Splash articles: