Humans have been worrying about the dwindling elephant population for decades, but it seems all that worrying has produced little. Elephants Without Borders' team of scientists recently undertook the Great Elephant Census, an effort to count all of Africa’s remaining savannah elephants. They were devastated to find the majestic creatures in far fewer numbers than previously thought. Instead of live elephants, they frequently encountered the rotting carcasses of elephants illegally slaughtered for their tusks. In one park, the team found only 48 live elephants, but 280 dead ones.
With only 352,271 left (excluding those that may live in Namibia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic), elephants may become the next generation's dinosaur — an extinct creature of wonder. In fact, it’s likely that hundreds more elephants have died since the census was completed.
In the early 20th century, there were an estimated 20 million elephants, but by 1979 that population had been cut to 1.3 million. Today, Africa’s elephant population is less than 30 percent of that. Elephants are facing a multitude of threats, but most of them are man-made. Elephant populations are suffering from habitat loss due to development and climate change, the dangers of human armed conflict, and, of course, poaching.
Elephants are smart enough to know when there’s trouble. Their dangerous circumstances are forcing them to cross borders in search of refuge, but sadly, it seems there are no safe places to found. They have been relocating to northern Botswana, making the country home to the largest elephant population in Africa. And though the border seems to be the elephants’ safest option at the moment, it’s an ideal region for poachers to hunt in as it offers them quick escape routes to three different countries.
Botswana has also suffered a severe national drought and is struggling to support its elephant population. “We are housing a lot of refugee elephants in Botswana [and] … the number of elephants is so high per square kilometre that it puts a lot of pressure on the environment,” the director of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks told BBC.
The Botswana Defense Force (BDF) actually has deployed a special task force devoted to protecting its elephants from poachers. The soldiers abide by a controversial shoot-to-kill policy, but are limited in what they can do by national borders. Often the poachers are foreigners, frequently former members of the Zambian special forces with sophisticated weaponry. Others rely on more basic methods, poisoning water sources, and using spears. But one member of the BDF explained that the work of foreign poachers is often facilitated by locals who know the land and can help them prepare food and water stores and tag locations with GPS.
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The poachers and their enablers may only ever see a few hundred dollars out of the tens of thousands of dollars the ivory will go for on the black market. It’s a short-sighted and vicious way to make quick money. A live elephant can generate over a million dollars through eco-tourism.
Sadly, efforts to save the elephants can be hampered by national interests and global inaction. Some countries are hesitant to adopt stricter policies on the sale of ivory, which could help reduce poaching, because they want the financial benefit of selling older, stockpiled ivory. And though there is much global discussion and many nonprofits devoted to saving the elephants, the millions of dollars put toward the cause do little to stop poachers who operate outside the law.
The results of the Great Elephant Census shocked scientists, the public, and governments alike. Until now, no one knew the full extent of the problem. Hopefully, the new data will provide the push needed to meaningfully effect change and preserve the small savannah elephant population that remains.
It is difficult to stop poaching from afar, but we can all play a role in saving the surviving elephants. Act to stop climate change and refuse to buy the ivory products the elephants are being slaughtered to make.
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