THE ELEPHANT DEBATE
No animal triggers more heated debate within conservation circles than the elephant, for no animal has greater impact on the environment or is more "human" emotionally. Elephants can change the face of the landscape enacting their allotted "recycling" role and they share with us humans many emotional traits. Theirs is a parallel lifespan, the same rate of development, a sense of family and death, loyalties and friendships forged over the years that span a lifetime and a memory that probably far surpasses our own. They also have additional attributes such as "instinct", that mysterious genetic knowledge crucial to survival; the ability to communicate over distance with low frequency infra-sound hidden to human ears, and, like many other animals, powers of telepathy. Hence, the question of how best to "manage" these highly sophisticated and sensitive pachyderms inevitably evokes heated debate.
Elephants and Ivory:- Unhappily, the ivory of their huge "incisors" has commercial and mystical significance, particularly in the Far East. In Japan, it is used for signature seals known as "hankas" and in many other Far Eastern countries such as China the ancient art of carving is an important industry with skills handed down over generations from father to son. It is the demand in the East for an ivory hanka, or in the West for an ivory trinket, that has injected the commercial element into ivory and it is the commercial trade that now threatens the survival of the largest land mammal on earth. All who buy ivory have blood on their hands, for it has cost an elephant its life and that of all its dependent young. It has also wrought immeasurable psychological suffering to many others who were friends and loved ones.
Elephants need S P A C E and space is a commodity that is fast becoming scarce due to human expansion. Ancient migration routes have been cut and elephants driven into their last refuges, often too small to be viable in the long-term, or positioned in marginal land where survival hinges on the variables of rainfall.
Meanwhile, conflicting messages from the elephant range States and different conservation factions has bred confusion in the minds of the lay public and since it is "people power" that will ultimately determine the course of events, it is important that the complexities of the elephant story are fully understood. Thirty years ago the elephant population of Africa stood at a healthy 3 million. Today less than 250,000 remain with numbers poised to decline further due to human pressures. Remnant elephant communities isolated from one another and holed up in small refuge areas immediately become "problem animals" every time they put a foot out, since they find themselves in conflict with human interests. The price of this is a bullet.
Elephant society is comprised of bonded female units which stay together for life (young bulls leave the natal family at puberty to apprentice themselves to high ranking bulls in order to learn the codes of behaviour that govern bull society). The female unit is led by the oldest member of the family, known as the Matriarch, and it is she who makes all the decisions for her family. Hence, within the cow units, the misfortunes of one, affect, all, making them particularly vulnerable. Elephant infants cannot survive without milk for the first two years of life. Thereafter, ideally, a calf would supplement its diet of vegetation with some milk from its mother for the next three years until the arrival of the next baby, by which time it will be 5 years old. It will reach puberty between the age of l0 and l5 years; be a young adult at 20, in its prime in its thirties and forties, still strong and healthy yet ageing in its fifties, and old beyond the age of sixty. Therefore, when a calf is orphaned younger than two, it is usually doomed, for whilst the family will love and care for it as best they can, few cow elephants with a calf at foot will have the lactating capacity to suckle two; nor would a cow jeopardise her own calf by doing so. Occasionally, if times are good, an old cow wise in the ways of motherhood will allow an orphan to suckle if she has lost a baby, or has one not wholly milk dependent, but such instances are rare. Deprived of milk, an orphaned infant will weaken rapidly, fall behind the herd and then the Matriarch must abandon it in the interests of the others whose survival is her responsibility. Her decision is final.
The gestation period for an elephant is between 22 and 24 months. A young cow can fall pregnant for the first time at puberty, so given optimum conditions a female elephant could have her first calf at the age of l2 or 14, thereafter producing one baby every five years into her sixties. However, conditions are seldom optimal for elephants these days. Most populations are under stress which inhibits conception; many are subjected to intense human intrusion through mass tourism and scientific monitoring; droughts are commonplace in marginal areas with both water and food scarce and, of course, in Southern Africa economics dominate, in a flawed "if it pays it stays" attitude, so periodic culls are accepted as necessary management practice. There the meat of culled elephants is canned as pet food, their hide turned into leather, fetching high prices in Japan, their feet sold as curios and their young sold to Zoos and Circuses under the "educational" loophole in the laws governing endangered species. What can be educational in viewing a miserable and usually psychotic captive is questionable, to say the least, particularly in this day and age of sophisticated technology.
The scale of abuse attached to the live baby elephant trade was graphically highlighted by what became known as the Tuli Debacle. Calves, some of which were only two years old, were snatched from their living families by Helicopter in the Tuli Block of Botswana and subsequently cruelly brutalised in a South African so called "training" facility in preparation for sale to China and the Far East. There they became the subject of a cruelty Court Case which ended up generating such international outrage that some, at least, were released into Marakele National Park where they subsequently became absorbed into a wild herd. However, others less fortunate were spirited away to Northern Transvaal , (no doubt to be "trained" further far from the public spotlight) and yet others were clandestinely airlifted to Zoos in Switzerland and Germany, there to face life imprisonment in conditions that are far from suitable for an elephant. (Pressure is being exerted to try and get these wild caught captives returned back to where they belong). Another report from Tanzania told of young elephants being isolated from the herd and chased by Landrovers until exhausted, then being netted and dragged hundreds of metres to a waiting transporter. (Needless to say, none of these captives survived). It is known that the live animal trade also acts as a convenient cover and conduit for illegal narcotics and diamonds.
The demand for young elephants in China is ongoing, because mortality is high in a country where animal welfare is an alien concept and captive elephants are subjected to untold cruelty and suffering. CITES (The International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) has always conveniently overlooked what is, and is not, "a suitable destination" in terms of elephants since few of the delegates are conversant with the needs, and nature, of elephants. The trade is lucrative, the demand is there, and money talks!
Poaching and CITES:- In the 1970's and 80's poaching escalated to such an extent that public outcry forced the International Community to take action. North of the Zambezi, entire populations of elephants faced annihilation; security within the Parks impacted negatively on tourism, (the mainstay of many African economies), and the situation was desperate. Finally, in 1989, CITES, which meets every two years to discuss trade in threatened and endangered species, was forced to impose an International Ban on the sale of all ivory. Elephants were placed on the fully protected Appendix I listing, the price of ivory fell sharply and with it the incentive to poach. In short, the elephants won a reprieve just in time throughout most of Africa and some countries such as Kenya and Zambia went so far as to burn their ivory stocks in a gesture of commitment and goodwill.
However, others further South and some further North in possession of illegal stockpiles, chose to hoard it, and immediately began to orchestrate a cunning P.R. campaign to be allowed to sell it, despite the fact that a further l0,000 elephants were estimated to have perished when Hong Kong was allowed to sell its stockpile immediately after the ban was imposed. This should have been a warning heeded but commercial interests often cloud good judgement.
The International Ivory Ban held for the next 8 years and for the first time ever poaching was brought under control. Furthermore, the in-house corruption that had crept into most wildlife authorities could be addressed. Yet, eight years is time enough only for just two generations of elephants to be born to replace the holocaust of the previous two decades and certainly not time enough to heal the fragile fabric of elephant society which had been severely disrupted. Still the pressure mounted from the Southern Africans with talk of "over population", "rampaging elephants" spilling out of protected areas to conflict with human interests, and the perennial cry that the dead must pay for the living. In this respect a quote from Dr. Richard Leakey sums up the opinion of informed conservationists:- "Biodiversity cannot be given a price The point is that species must stay, so we must pay. National Parks are not larders to be plundered and exploited." One can be excused for thinking that perhaps we humans should begin by addressing the negative impact our species has had on the planet through cultivation, open-cast mining, industrial pollution, river contamination, forest felling and other facets of mismanagement! The damage done to the planet by homo sapiens exceeds that of all others.
In June l997, another CITES Convention was convened in Harare, Zimbabwe, and amidst a great deal of political manoeuvring, the Ivory Ban that had held for the past eight years was overturned, and overturned in an unethical way through a second secret ballot. This over-rode the first vote in favour of the elephants, because the European Union chose to abstain, which cost the elephants dearly. In so doing, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana finally won the right for a one-off sale of their ivory stockpiles to Japan. Shamefully, this time, Animal Welfare Organisations there to speak for the animals and provide some semblance of "conscience" within a trade oriented forum, were denied even a voice, despite the fact that it is they who are best equipped to furnish the usually ill informed delegates with first hand information on conservation issues. Even the report of the scientific "Panel of Experts" which questioned the poaching figures submitted by Zimbabwe, fell on deaf ears. In a nutshell, the l997 CITES Conference of the Parties will go down in history as a disgraceful showing of acrimony, strong arm tactics, and deviousness, besides being a mega conservation blunder. Nevertheless, the South African population of elephants remained on Appendix I and that, at least, was some consolation.
Immediately, the message was out - elephants were up for grabs again. Illegal ivory could again be "laundered" into the legal system; poaching escalated, as did the stockpiling of illegal ivory, and this at a time when the elephant populations had barely recovered from the previous onslaught. Furthermore, many African range States were in a worsening state of political chaos with no hope of adequate law enforcement; automatic weapons were easily procurable and many wildlife authorities were impoverished and riddled with corruption. More sinister still, there were those that embarked on a deliberate strategy of covering up poaching incidents either to disguise their own shortcomings or because they had vested interests in the illegal trade. In April 2000, The CITES Conference of the Parties met yet again, this time in Nairobi, Kenya, amidst conflicting and confused reports about whether, in fact, poaching for ivory was responsible for the further demise of elephants, or whether, in fact, there had been a reduction in numbers. The CITES Secretariat was quite openly biased in favour of the Southern African pro-trade lobby and Kenya and India found themselves alone in admitting a serious escalation in poaching and pressing for the fully protected Appendix I listing to be reinstated. Other range States, known to have been under poaching pressure, saw fit to again conceal the facts for the same reasons as before; yet others were either "bought" or intimidated and in the end a compromise emerged – a two year moratorium on the sale of all ivory in exchange for the downlisting to Appendix II of the South African population, thereby sanctioning the trade in all elephant by-products, except ivory, but including live elephants. Yet again, the thorny question of what is, and what is not, a suitable destination failed to be adequately defined. Worse still, within just a month or two, Zimbabwe deliberately flouted the Convention's ruling and went ahead with the sale of a large quantity of ivory to China! Nor is there any doubt that in two years' time, the pressure to open the Ivory Trade will be even greater, so the The Millennium Cites gathering will go down in history as being a no-win situation yet again for the elephants. It would seem that only when the Southern African populations are threatened with extinction will the International Community respond by placing all ivory off limits forever, since wealthy Southern Africa has more to offer the world in terms of trade than other African range States.
Culling as a Management Option:- The only practical way of "culling" elephant herds is to gun down entire family groups, first having immobilised the Matriarch from a helicopter so that the family cluster around her, confused and rudderless. The drug commonly used is scholine, banned for use on humans, since it collapses the muscles causing total paralysis, yet leaves the victim fully conscious. An anaesthetic would, of course, be far more humane, but it would contaminate the meat and detract from its commercial value. Yet, no-one can deny that an elephant cull is anything short of a brutal massacre that sickens even the most seasoned men detailed to undertake this terrible task as part of their conservation duties.
Significant, however, is the fact that artificial culling is undoubtedly seriously flawed. With all age groups within the female herds still intact, and pressure off the land by the removal of some, the breeding rate inevitably rises. Culling therefore has to be ongoing and the problem of "too many elephants" is never truly solved, serving, of course, the interests of the commercial trade. But, culling as practised in Southern Africa is fundamentally flawed for another very important reason, expediently overlooked. It deprives Nature of evolution's most potent genetic tool - Natural Selection - something that can never be duplicated by man. The survival of the fittest ensures the strength of the genetic core of wild populations so that only the best genes perpetuate. Natural Selection is the powerhouse of evolution, crucial to healthy stock, and vital for adaptation in an ever changing habitat, for Nature is never static; it is a dynamic and volatile force with evolution constantly at work. The term "Conservation" has been defined thus by one of the world's most eminent ecologists, the late Sir Frank Fraser Darling:- "Maintenance of the Energy flux is conservation – reduction of it is the opposite to conservation".
No-one can argue that the removal of large numbers of elephant from the environment for commercial purposes, is anything other than a reduction of the energy flux and as such contrary to the fundamentals of conservation. Neither should the contribution of the dead to the wellbeing of the living be overlooked. A dead elephant feeds a great many predators for a long time, and the recycling of its remains back into the environment returns nutrients to the soil from whence they sprung, contributing to fertility. Even the tail hairs of a dead elephant serve a useful function, plucked out by the birds for nests; bones are chewed and scattered by predators, gnawed by rodents or weathered back into the soil by the elements. A study done in Tsavo recorded 84,700 insects in just 3 kilos of elephant dung, so ponder for a moment the forces at work to recycle what once was a living elephant. When nothing is removed from the habitat, nothing is lost, and the environment is the richer for it.
The Tsavo Example:- The thorny issue of what to do about an over population of elephants in a confined area continues to simmer. Attempts at birth control through pill implants have proved problematical and are still in the experimental stage. Who, in fact, is qualified to determine how many is too many, when there are too many, and which ones should die? Only Nature can do this, and the example is there within Kenya's Tsavo National Park, the only Park in Africa where natural processes and vegetational progression has been allowed to proceed to a natural conclusion devoid of human intervention. In Tsavo elephant/vegetational cyclical patterns have been carefully monitored over time and a natural elephant die-off that took place in the early seventies has been scientifically documented. There man stood aside to look and learn rather than to crash in clumsily where angels feared to tread.
The argument most commonly used to justify the large-scale killing of elephant herds is that they destroy the habitat, threatening the survival of other life forms. But, where is the evidence to support this premise? In Tsavo what at one point in time appeared to be wholesale "destruction" of the woody plant community, turned out to be something quite different. Nor did the predicted demise of many species due to the activity of elephants occur - rather the reverse; the habitat was improved and became more productive benefiting biodiversity. There the ability of Nature to adjust elephant numbers was illustrated and the reason for the female bonding within elephant society also became clear. Added to this, human failings such as corruption and greed illustrated the pitfalls of "commercial utilisation" of wild free ranging populations, where Nature imposes its own controls through predation, disease, and food and water availability, no provision allowed in the system for human predation on a commercial scale.
It so happened that Naturalists, as opposed to Scientists, were at the wildlife helm at that point in time. They viewed things not in isolation, but as a whole, since Naturalists do not specialise but consider the big picture. Sympathetic handling of wild populations and compassion for the orphaned and injured is not seen as a weakness but rather an essential element of sensitive conservation husbandry. A Naturalist has the advantage of vision unblinkered by scientific constraints and an intrinsic passion for wild unspoilt places where Nature and natural processes rule supreme, and where wild animals enjoy a quality of life untroubled by intrusive management. Naturalists understand that Nature holds the answers to many puzzles and that humans should take the time to look and learn rather than blunder in where angels fear to tread. Nature is complex and every living organism, whether large or small, is intertwined contributing, each in its own way, to the wellbeing of the whole. It has the ability to best correct imbalances caused by artificial boundaries with species adapting to change, and finding their own optimum levels within habitat conditions prevailing at the time. What can exist naturally within artificial boundaries will, and what can't, wont, such limitations being preferable to artificially manipulated situations that impact negatively both on quality of life and the sense of wilderness, quite apart from usually being too costly for Third World resources. Above all, Naturalists bow to the significance of natural selection, viewing it as a vital and necessary process that contributes to the wellbeing of the species. After all, no one knows better than Nature as to who should live and who should die.when the time comes. In other words, when it comes to intrusive management, less is always best.
Tsavo National Park is 8,000 sq. miles in extent. It was established in l948, not because of its wealth of wildlife, but simply because it was a large chunk of country not suitable for either pastoral or agricultural purposes - an inhospitable arid thirstland with an average annual rainfall of between just l0 and and 20 inches; its barren wastes tsetse infested "commiphora" scrub served by only two permanent rivers; the malarial parasite and tsetse borne trypanosomiasis a deterrent to both humans and domestic livestock. Grasses were sparse or absent altogether beneath the dense entanglement of barbed scrub and sanseveria that dominated at that time, and as a result water runoff during the wet seasons produced flash flooding in sand luggas that lay dry for the rest of the year. Then, the habitat favoured the browsing species such as elephant, and black rhino, both of which were present in very large numbers, as were dikdik, lesser kudu and gerenuk. Grazers were few and sparse, but diverse nevertheless. However, the viewing of anything was severely restricted due to the impenetrable wall of bush that gave way reluctantly to every trail.
By fortunate geographical accident, however, the Park just happened to hold a greater variety of different species than any other Park in the world, for there the northern and southern forms of fauna just happened to meet, doubling up on common species. It harboured Peters Gazelle as well as the Common Grant, the Somali ostrich along with the Masai, reticulated forms of giraffe merging into obvious Masai patterning, and, prior to the great rinderpest epidemic of the late l800's which decimated the ungulates, Greater kudu as well as the more common lesser variety and even Sable.
In l948 when the Park first came into being, human pressure had yet to manifest itself along the boundaries, so elephants roamed an ecosystem of l6,000 square miles, twice the size of the Park itself. By the late l960's, however, human expansion and good Park protection brought most of the 45,000 elephants of the ecosystem within the Park's borders, and their impact on the environment became glaringly evident. Damage to the woodland scrub trees at a glance did appear catastrophic, but as the picture unfolded, it became clear that what was first seen as "destruction" was, in fact, no more than a rather untidy phase of a perfectly natural cycle in which scrubland was being recycled to make way for a grassland regime which would benefit the grazers hitherto suppressed. Only the elephant can trigger such change.
Inevitably, there was talk of "culling", but ivory related corruption endemic within the higher echelons of Government called for caution. Furthermore, it had taken the Park authorities the previous two decades to control the illegal poaching of elephants within the Park boundaries by a traditional elephant hunting tribe known as the Waliangulu who would surely have difficulty rationalising why the authorities had the right to slaughter elephants when they had been prevented from doing so. Equally as important was the fact that Kenya was a leader in the psychological aspect of wild animals, and particularly of elephants, so the humane angle was a major consideration. That elephants are essentially "human" in emotion was already known as early as the fifties, (and has recently been scientifically proved through a study of the components of both human and elephant breast milk, both of which contain complex olichosacharides that promote complex brain formation). Like us, elephants "bury" their dead, covering a body with sticks and leaves; they grieve and mourn a lost loved one as deeply as any human, returning to the remains to pay their respects periodically, and for years afterwards. Like us, elephants remember - in fact, they never forget, so they are constantly in touch with friends and loved ones throughout their life.
As humans, we understand the trauma of death, and most of us are familiar with grief. So, consider the grief wrought amongst elephants subjected to an annual "cull"; the trauma of forever being stalked by the threat of death, of annually mourning friends and family and never knowing who is next. It is unacceptable to believe that only humans are worthy of compassion or that the world exists simply for the benefit of mankind. We need a more holistic approach to Nature and the other creatures that have evolved in tandem with us on this planet, all of which fulfil a specific function within the environment.
Of course, The Wardens of the time had the benefit of the South African example as well. They knew that with commercial culling inevitably come Tanning and Meat Processing plants employing a work force that cannot easily be dismissed; contracts and deadlines that have to be met and policy decisions influenced by economics rather than environmental considerations, not to mention the danger posed to visitors by traumatised and wounded animals too fearful to stand for a photograph. Then there is the perennial problem of corruption and greed creeping into the equation with disastrous results.
Fortunately, however, in Tsavo, the controversial "Elephant Debate" was overtaken by events in l970 when a worse than usual drought hit the Park and Nature stepped in to sort things out ahead of man. Subjected to stress due to the shortage of food, natural adjustment of the birth rate began to inhibit recruitment. The cows simply did not conceive. Furthermore, the oldest females of the cow units, the Matriarchs, were the first to feel the affects of malnutrition and as strength ebbed, they took the female family within easy reach of permanent water. There conditions during drought conditions are inevitably harsher, affecting all members of the female herd. Then came the quiet mass die-off of selected female age groups throughout the entire population - a one-off event that saw the loss of almost 9,000 mainly female elephants of specific age groups. This created the generation gaps necessary to relieve the pressure on the land, immediately plunging the elephant population into a long slow decline which relieved the pressure on the land and made way for the regeneration of a new generation of trees. These had, of course, been planted by the elephants themselves in their long range wanderings, deposited far and wide in their dung. The reason that Nature has ordained that female elephants stay bonded together for life now becomes obvious, for in order to put a population into decline, it is the breeding females that must be targeted.
It was all over within three months, at no cost, and with no disruption to other wild communities - no profiteering - just a cataclysmic natural tragedy soon obscured by the mists of time. Only the ivory was removed from the carcasses. In a perfect world this too should have remained where it was, to be recycled back from whence it came. The removal of females from the Tsavo population set the stage for the elephants to achieve a natural equilibrium with the food resource now available to them, bearing in mind that the population had been swelled by unnatural immigration induced by human expansion.
This now poses a question. Surely, in this day and age of sophistication, it must be possible to repeat a natural die-off artificially, using anaesthesia rather than scholine and to remove a selected number of females of selected age groups, as did Nature? A natural die off has to take place, at the most, only once in an elephant's lifetime and this surely must be more humane than an annual cull. Could mankind not sacrifice the meat once in an elephant's lifetime in the interests of good conservation, particularly as there is an over-abundance of domestic livestock badly in need of a cull for environmental reasons. These are the issues that Science should be addressing and especially now that the lay public are better informed about the nature of elephants. Inhumane handling of elephants, and indeed all animals, is becoming anathema.
Elephants are essentially fragile; huge eating machines that require not only a great quantity of vegetation in a day, but also a wide selection of different plants including the bark of trees to provide the trace elements and minerals essential for such a large frame. They are delicate in infancy and by design have been equipped with a surprisingly inefficient digestive system, passing 6% protein in their dung. Once denied the essentials in their diet, they weaken rapidly, which forces them to retreat to sources of permanent water where conditions are inevitably worse. Before all others, they are the first to feel the affects of malnutrition, inducing a condition known as ketosis, which is a painless lethargy caused by lowered blood sugar levels, even when there is food in the stomach. What that food lacks, however, is the quantity and nutritional components needed to maintain strength. The elephants become comatose, spending a lot of time asleep, devoid of energy to move far from water. Inevitably, one day, they simply cannot get up and then the end comes quickly and quietly. They die surrounded by their loved ones who bring comfort and love right up until the end, and who then have time to mourn as they "bury" their dead, comforting each other in their bereavement. (It is this natural die-off that in the past gave rise to the legendary myth of "the elephants' graveyard" when the bones of many elephants were found near sources of permanent water).
Hot on the heels of the Tsavo die-off came the rampant poaching of the seventies and eighties, and this pushed the population rapidly below the optimum downward swing of the natural vegetational seesaw, foreshortening the grassland cycle. This then is the only unnatural event in Tsavo, and one that could impact negatively on the grazers in the long-term since they may not be afforded the time they need to proliferate to the point when they can withstand another woodland cycle. The woodlands are regenerating, and regenerating rapidly, so Tsavo will revert to what it was like when the Park was first proclaimed – dense scrub thicket. Thus, within just l5 years, Tsavo's once over population of elephants became an under population threatened with annihilation. The poaching was now fuelled by in-house greed and corruption forcing the elephants to abandon huge swathes of the Park, too fearful to return for the next 30 years. Ironically they sought shelter around human habitation where the AK 47 and G3 wielding killers could not easily get at them, but this created a different set of problems – that of the so-called "problem elephants". Only the imposition of the Ivory Ban in l989 brought a reprieve and only now, thirty years later, are the elephants beginning to venture back into the interior of the Park.
The role of Elephants is a very crucial one, crucial to the survival of many other species both large and small. They are Nature's Bulldozers, their most important function that of recycling the nutrients and trace elements locked in wood, drawn up out of soil by tree roots over decades. Only when the trees themselves are felled are these rare earths released back into the environment to become available to other plant and animal life less well equipped. No other animal can, for instance, recycle the precious minerals of the giant Baobab, a long lived colossus extremely rich in calcium and trace elements. The debris of trees felled by elephants shield pioneer grasses and shrubs from trampling; deep rooted perennial grasses follow, the grazers proliferate and browsers decline. Natural selection ensures that the gene pool is honed and that the strongest survive in readiness for another thicket phase as elephant numbers fall. Then, if the elephants can be adequately protected, their numbers will rise again in tandem with the regeneration of the woodlands, and this then is the natural order of events - a cyclical vegetational seesaw of woodland to grassland and back to woodland inextricably intertwined with elephant numbers.
It is the elephants who create the trails that benefit all others, roads that not only select the best alignment over difficult terrain, but also unerringly point the way to water, acting as conduits for run-off rainwater directing it to the waterholes and ensuring that they fill more surely and rapidly. Elephants create the waterholes in the first place and enlarge them every time they bathe, carrying away copious quantities of mud plastered on their huge bodies. The puddling action of their giant feet seals the bottom against seepage, so that water lasts longer in the dry seasons benefiting all life and relieving feeding pressures near permanent sources. Elephants also have the ability to expose hidden subsurface supplies buried deep beneath the sands of the dry riverbeds, making it accessible to others by tunnelling at an angle with their trunks. Their sheer weight compresses the sand bringing water closer to the surface as dozens of elephants patiently await their turn to drink from these holes. Were the elephants not there to fulfil this function, all water dependent species would not be able to exist in such places - a case in point being the Tiva river in Tsavo, which literally died faunally when the elephants left.
Elephants provide in other ways too, breaking down branches to bring browse to a lower level, thereby making it accessible to the many smaller creatures that share their world. By felling trees they create the space that allows seedlings to take root and grow uninhibited by their parents' shadow. The very rapid metabolism of an elephant ensures copious quantities of dung, the very life support for the largest scarabs, who roll it into balls and bury it deep below the ground, thereby enriching the soil. The dung also attracts the insects that nourish a host of insectivorous birds, mammals and reptiles and because elephants have such an inefficient digestive system, it is particularly rich.
The Future:- Tsavo provides an example of how Nature controls elephant populations. Whilst the natural die- off of elephant and the build-up to it has been well documented, unfortunately, no in-depth study of the subsequent sequence of events was undertaken, simply because gun brandishing poachers proved a deterrent. However, records and photographic evidence does exist within the Sheldrick Trust's Archives making a retrospective study feasible.
One thing is sure, and that is that CITES which should have prevented the demise of the elephant by controlling the trade has failed in its mandate. Instead it has evolved into a political lobby bent on trade and the endangered species have become mere pawns in a money game. In fact, in the past CITES agents themselves orchestrated the laundering of illegal ivory into a stockpile in Burundi, accepting bribes as a pay-off for the CITES stamp. Now, more than ever, when the elephants are so very vulnerable, their social family fabric torn to tatters, should the world SAY NO TO IVORY, no matter in what form. Each and every one of us can, and should, at least do that. Every piece of ivory is a haunting memory of a once proud and majestic animal, that should have lived three score years and ten; who has loved and been loved, and was once a member of a close-knit family akin to our own; but who has suffered and died in unspeakable agony to yield a tooth for a trinket. Something so symbolic of death and suffering can never be beautiful.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust P.O. Box 15555 Nairobi Kenya