It’s not hyperbole to suggest that my first encounter with endangered elephants in the wild changed my life.
It was about two hours into my first-ever safari drive on my first afternoon in Kruger National Park, South Africa. We spotted a majestic bull elephant feeding on leaves about 75 feet to our left. Our driver turned the vehicle to get a better view, and it looked like the massive male might turn tail and run. But our tracker/guide calmly cut the engine and we waited quietly to see how the elephant would respond.
The 12,000-pound elephant– the world’s largest living terrestrial mammal– slowly moved towards us with a mixture of curiosity and caution. When he got to within 30 feet, I nervously wondered if he was going to charge us, but our guide assured me that his body language suggested otherwise. Finally he came to within 15 feet, raised his trunk and sniffed the air.
We sat breathless and motionless, not daring to take pictures from this range. Time seemed to stand still as he sized us up. Eventually he turned, walked over to the nearest tree, bent it over as if it were merely a matchstick to get at its fresh foliage, and resumed feeding. From that overwhelming moment on, I was an avid wildlife lover, and eventually devoted my life to nature and wildlife conservation.
Unfortunately, elephants in Africa and Asia have become increasingly endangered over the past decade. In this story we’ll look at some of the major problems each of these elephant populations has been facing, as some of the extraordinary efforts currently underway to help protect these beautiful creatures to ensure that they’re around for many generations to come.
Endangered Elephants in Africa
The African continent is home to two endangered elephant species. The elusive African Forest Elephant, which lives in the forests of the Congo, is the smallest of the world’s three elephant species. The African Bush Elephant can grow up to 24 feet in length and 13 feet in height, weighing around 11 tons. It’s the largest of the elephant species and can live up to 70 years– longer than any mammal except humans.
These massive herbivores eat around 350 pounds of vegetation every day, lifting plants with their muscular trunks (which have two finger-like ends for manipulating small objects). They forage in search of food in herds made up of related females and their offspring, led by the eldest matriarch.
The African elephant population dropped dramatically over the past century, from several million at the turn of the 20th century to less than 500,000 today. As a result, both these species have been listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Habitat destruction has been a growing challenge to the survival of these increasingly endangered elephants. But hunting/poaching has been the biggest cause for their dramatic population loss.
A study published in 2013 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) showed that elephant poaching has doubled, and the illegal ivory trade has tripled, within the last decade.
Fortunately, there has been some great news for the African Elephant species recently, which we’ll discuss in more detail later in our story…
Endangered Elephants in Asia
Averaging 8-9 feet tall and 18-21 feet long, Asian Elephants are the largest land mammals in Asia. The three different subspecies are distributed widely across the continent, from India in the west to Borneo’s island of Sumatra in the east.
Weighing around 3 to 4 tons, they’re considerably smaller than the African Bush Elephant. They’re also distinguishable from their African cousins thanks to their distinctive trunks, which have just one finger-like tip rather than two.
Like other Elephants, their trunks are used for breathing, watering, feeding, communication, washing, pinching, grasping, and more.
With a population estimated to have declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, these are the most endangered elephants in the world. They’re currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN, which estimates the remaining wild population to be somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals.
As with their African cousins, Asian Elephants have been increasingly threatened by habitat loss and poaching for their valuable ivory tusks, which fetch a hefty price on Asia’s black market. Many Asian Elephants are unfortunately abused, forced to perform tricks on the streets of Asia or do back-breaking work in the logging industry.
These enslaved Elephants have usually been tortured in a horrifically cruel training regiment known as the phajaan. The process involves tying a wild elephant up for several days, beating them into submission, and leaving them to starve, with the goal of crushing their spirit. Fortunately, there are wildlife advocates working to end the brutal practice and provide sanctuary for rescued animals.
Hope For Endangered Elephants
Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency says Elephant poaching in Tanzania became rampant due to the rise in corruption of government authorities paid to look the other way during the process of transporting poached elephant ivory to China. Poaching rings are controlled by Asian crime syndicates and African terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, whose leaders are seen as untouchable.
But recent arrests of Tanzania’s most powerful elephant poachers– Yang Feng Glan (a.k.a. the Queen of Ivory) and Boniface Matthew Mariango (a.k.a. The Devil)– suggest that the tide may be turning. Both were arrested by the Tanzanian National & Transnational Serious Crime Investigation Unit, which was formed in 2015 to combat the country’s poaching problem. CNN reports that they’re catching at least one poacher a day, and have made great strides towards the reduction of wildlife poaching as a whole.
In Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert is leading the charge for Elephant sanctuaries that emphasize the importance of conservation, rescuing abused, orphaned, and injured animals from throughout the region.
After graduating from Chiang Mai University, Chailert opened the 250-acre Elephant Nature Park and launched the non-profit Save Elephant Foundation. She has since rescued hundreds of Elephants the logging, tourism, and street begging industries, and oversees more than a dozen different conservation projects in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and beyond.
The world’s endangered Elephants still have a long way to go before any of these spectacular species can truly be considered safe for extinction. But we here at Discover Corps encourage travelers to educate themselves further on the issues Elephants are facing, and to help spread the word about the importance of responsible travel and wildlife conservation.
Together, we can all do our part to help make a difference for one of the world’s most majestic animals. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.