Its time to take stock of our Elephants

Time is ticking by for Africa’s elephants. We reflect on the plight of Africa’s elephants and what it is that we can do to turn back the clock.

If you spent just half an hour pondering why it is important to step up the game for Africa’s elephants, here are 5 things worth considering:

1. The demand for ivory in the East, notably China, is on the increase. Previous experimental sales through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have shown that it is impossible to regulate the Chinese market and to control trade. With the poaching wave having decimated certain elephant populations in West and Central Africa, the tide is turning to East and Southern Africa. Kenya and Tanzania, in particular, are being hit rather hard right now, but there is hope. Finally, the international community is stepping up to the plate and taking action and, through such positive developments as the Obama Administration’s pledge to help African governments enhance enforcement efforts, there may well be some light at the end of the ivory tunnel.

2. We all know that elephants need space. We also know that elephant habitats are becoming more and more fragmented as human populations increase alternative land-use options (such as agriculture and mining) become more appealing economic incentives for local communities than conservation. The importance of maintaining functional ecological networks is thus crucial, for many reasons. At a landscape level, elephants can tell us a lot about how such networks can be maintained. For example, in northern Botswana, elephants move according to seasons and the associated availability of resources. They traverse international borders. They move over land that is not necessarily officially designated as conservation land, in some form or another. Their movement patterns give us insight into what the important linkages are between protected areas, where they spend most of their time. As flagships for conservation, we can learn a lot from elephants.

3. Elephants and people matter. For centuries, elephants and people have coexisted and, despite what we read at times, the same is true today. The stakes might be higher in certain areas given human and elephant population dynamics, but, in rural Africa, a respectful coexistence remains. That is not to say that there isn’t conflict. This has always existed and is true today. However, there are numerous efforts underway, continent-wide, to mitigate conflict and promote sustainable community development. Conservation, by its very nature, has presented opportunities to help address livelihood issues. At the end of the day it is about finding the right balance – it is naïve to think that conservation alone can solve the myriad livelihood challenges out there. It can only contribute in a small way. After all, conservation in and of itself, has inherent value.

4. It’s “worth” the effort. In this day and age, it seems difficult for many to define natural resources in anything other than economic terms. Sure, elephants contribute enormously to tourism revenues in many African countries and that cannot be denied. I would like to suggest, however, that we change our lens in looking at elephants and start appreciating their inherent value. We shouldn’t have to justify their existence in economic terms. If you have ever had the privilege of watching elephant family groups interact at water holes, or anywhere for that matter, I would contend that something inside you would have stirred. It is that feeling that justifies their existence, as an intricate part of this complex web of life, and there is no shame in that.

5. There is hope. Just as the renowned evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, has reminded the world in his book, “The better angels of our nature”, that we live in far less violent times today than at any other time in history, a great deal of positive efforts are underway to protect elephants and their habitats, far more so than at any other time in history. We should remain cognisant of the fact that there are many success stories to point to and that the future of safeguarding viable elephant populations in secure habitats is a reality. Let’s stay optimistic as we pursue our conservation goals, but at the same time understand that there are certain things that just shouldn’t be tolerated, for example, an elephant having to be killed for its ivory to satisfy spurious demands.

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