conservation

The Elephant in the Room

How much do ninety-six elephants weight?  Simple answer - it depends on what kind of elephant. Ninety-six Asian elephants weigh 1,152,000 lbs; 96 African savanna elephants weigh 1,248,000 lbs; and 96 African forest elephants weigh a mere 576,000 lbs.  And yes, there is a species of elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) that lives in the forest of Central Africa, and that was only “discovered” by science in 2005.   But, why 96 elephants?  Again, simple answer - that is the number of African elephants that are leaving planet Earth every 24 hours.  Ninety-six elephants!  There are 96 elephants a day that die due to poaching and habitat destruction and disease and all those other challenges that conservationists are all too familiar with since these same challenges threaten species across the planet.     

Elephants have been on my mind since the first Tarzan show I watched in the 1970s.  I love elephants!  Since those early episodes with Tarzan and Jane, I became increasingly aware of the plight of the elephant.  Then in 2000, I went to the Congo to work on an elephant conservation project.  That year I immobilized my first African forest elephant—a bull named Sue (after the Johnny Cash Song a Boy named Sue)—so the biologist on the team could place a GPS collar around his neck and we could begin to unravel the secrets of his hidden life under the dense Central African canopy.  Over the intervening 17 years, I have worked with orphaned baby elephants and elephants with snares and other human caused injuries in Africa and with Asian "working" elephants in Myanmar and Thailand. 

What is most striking about elephants, beyond how amazingly awesome they are, is how their numbers are plummeting daily.  Roughly there now exists less than 600,000 African and 40,000 Asian elephants.  While many people want to direct the “elephant debate” on whether elephants belong under human care, most people do not want to face the real “elephant in the room”.  Elephant discussions would be much better directed to consider the dire status of these giants of the forests and fields of Asia and Africa.   

The data in a scientific paper just published by Poulsen et al. (2017) helps to conceptualize the plight of the elephant.  In this study, researchers used elephant dung counts to estimate elephant density in Minkébé National Park, Gabon, Africa.  Minkébé is a 3,000 square mile park (or a park about the size of 3 Rhode Islands).  You need to know just one thing about Minkébé before we look at their data.  In the early 2000s, Minkébé had the highest density of elephants in all of Central Africa.  In the Poulsen et al. study, they looked at the number of elephants from 2004 to 2014 and found that their numbers fell from 35,000 in 2004 to 7,000 in 2014.  That is 28,000 elephants that died in just one park, in just one decade, in just one country in Central Africa.   And, if you calculate the full loss of elephants across all of Africa during that same 10 yr period, you would get 350,400 elephants (10 X 96 X 365).  With a little math, you see that the 28,000 elephants that were killed in Minkébé during that period represents only 8% of all the elephants that died over those 10 years.  This is simply madness!    

Let’s meet a couple of African Forest Elephants 

Lessons from Little Kotto

One elephant I will never forget is Kotto.  Although, I have found that 99.9% of people love a baby elephant, most no one wants mother elephants to live in their backyards.  When I first met Kotto, he was living in an oil camp in the African rain forest after his mother had been killed while raiding crops in a nearby village.  I fell instantly in love.  Little Kotto was barely able to stand, but soon with veterinary care and a lot of TLC, he was up and rambunctious and acting like a baby elephant.  We spent weeks providing veterinary care and mothering for this one lonely baby elephant. Sadly before a month was up, he was among the 96 African elephants that died on that one day.  The lessons from working with and loving Kotto were many, but a major one was realizing that of the 96 elephants that are killed each day, they may be young or old.  

Lessons from Tobblerone

We in the USA often think that the plight of the elephant is a problem over there, on someone else’s land, and caused by someone else.  This could not be further from the truth.  During a week period in which I, and a team of other conservationists, walked around an oil field in Gabon, Africa—a site where oil is extracted and sent to countries across the globe, we tracked a big bull forest elephant.  This bull had a snare (one example of human-elephant interaction) encircling his leg, and I watched as he became progressively lame.  After days of tracking, I was finally able to get an anesthetic dart in at a time when he was not in the middle of the lake where he spent most of the days self-treating (hydrotherapy!) his wound.   Anesthetics  on board, we were then able to remove the snare, treat his wound, and save this one elephant. Affectionately named Tobblerone, after my 3 legged cat, I hear that years later he still roams the African forest and oil fields.  Although Tobblerone did not become one of the 96 dead elephants on our watch, this work showed how truly connected elephant conservation is to all corners of the globe.  I may have used oil from that oil field today as I sit in my house in the USA.        

A World Without Elephants

I don’t want to live in a world without elephants and I will most likely get this wish.  But what of my 13 yr old son or his son or his great, great, great granddaughter?  I fear they will not share a planet with these amazing family-oriented and intelligent creatures.  These mammoths that inspire us, often simply by their size, and that make us care for the world, are also out doing their part as ecosystem engineers.  Elephants disperse seeds and serve as bulldozers for the environment, modifying landscapes in countless ways and for countless other species. 

Let’s work together to ensure Tobblerone and his offspring and all the baby elephants that were born the same year as Kotto and who would have shared the forest with him, have a place to live in the coming years.  A place to live free of the constant fear that we humans so often bring to their lives.   

References:

http://www.96elephants.org/

Blake, S., and Deem, S.L.  2008.  Kotto’s Story.  Wildlife Conservation Society Magazine.  104: 14-15.

Blake, S., Deem, S.L., Strindberg, S., Maisels, M., Momont, L., Isia, I.-B., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Karesh, W.B., and Kock, M.D. 2008.  Roadless wilderness area determines forest elephant movements in the Congo Basin.  Plos One. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003546.

Blake, S., Deem, S.L., Mossimbo, E., Maisels, F., and Walsh, P.  2009.  Forest Elephants: Tree Planters of the Congo.  Biotropica.  41: 459-468.

Deem, S.L, and Blake, S. 2004. Tracking an elephantine mystery. Zoogoer. 33: 20-28.

Deem, S.L. 2008. Tracking a snared elephant.  In: Spelman, L.H., and Mashima, T.Y. (eds.), The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes.  Bantam Dell Publishers.  pp. 138-147. 

Poulsen, J.R., Koerner, S.E., Moore, S., Medjibe, V.P., Blake, S., Clark, C.J., Akou, M.E., Fay, M., Meier, A., Okouy, J., Rosin, C., and White, L.J.T. 2017.  Poaching empties critical Central African wilderness of forest elephants.  Current Biology.  27: R1-R3.

Roca, A.L., Georgiadis, N., O’Brien, S.J.  2005.  Cytonuclear genomic dissociation in African elephant species.  Nature Genetics.  37: 96-100

We All Live on an Island

If you are anything like me, when someone starts talking about an island, you are whisked away visually to a tropical paradise with sand and surf.  Possibly you are holding a fancy drink with a little umbrella.  But, over the years when I hear anyone talk about islands, I now see much more than this.   

The world from the eyes of an island boy

The first time I truly appreciated that “we all live on an island” is when my 4 ½ year old son, Charlie and I were heading east on highway 64 and into Saint Louis, Missouri.  In front of us was the famous Saint Louis Arch—the Gateway to the West.  Charlie was riding in the back, safely in his car seat.   As I drove we were having one of those priceless mother – son bonding discussions, easily switching between topics as I was invited in to see the world from the eyes of a child.  Then Charlie asked, “Mom, can you see the whole island from the top of the arch?” 

To better understand where this question may have originated, you must know where we had just been.  The day before Charlie asked this question, we had landed in the States after 6 months of living on a small island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.  In Charlie’s mind it only made sense that the whole island could be seen from the top of such a high structure.     

Lessons from Geographical Islands

Since that car ride, I have increasingly come to appreciate that we do all live on an island.  In the intervening years I have lived and worked in the Galapagos Islands, traveled often to work on the island nation of Madagascar, and have provided veterinary care to wildlife populations on “islands of remaining habitats” across the globe.  These life and work experiences have opened my eyes to appreciating how islands—both geographical and human created—share a growing number of conservation and health challenges. 

My years living in Galapagos probably brought this understanding most to light.  The Galapagos Islands—known as the world’s laboratory for the study of the theory of evolution by natural selection, may increasingly be a place of unnatural selection.  As tourists flock to the islands to see the endemic life forms, including marine iguanas, Darwin finches and Galapagos tortoises, change too has arrived on the islands.  Once protected from humans by the geographical isolation provided by the Pacific Ocean these species evolved naturally.  However, in this new age of the Anthropocene, we know that where people travel, human induced changes are inevitable.  These changes include land development, fragmentation and degradation, pollution, invasive species, and emerging infectious diseases.  For the creatures of Galapagos these changes have led to a new form of evolution by “unnatural selection” (https://www.stlzoo.org/files/4513/5058/8698/ICM_unnaturalselection2010.pdf).  This in the land of Charles Darwin!     

We all Live on an Island

Whether islands are geographical islands surrounded by an ocean or island habitats created by human modified landscapes, we all live on an island. One only needs to look at the fate of the inhabitants of Easter Island as a foreshadow of what occurs when natural resources, and space, are limited.  Threats for island species are related to population isolation, genetic bottlenecks, and smaller population sizes being at risk of random events, such as extreme weather patterns (think climate weirding!) or the introduction of novel disease causing pathogens.  Unfortunately, these threats are not limited to oceanic islands.

So how did I answer my son?  I stated with all the authority of a mom, “No honey you can’t see the whole island from the top of the arch.  The United States is a little too big for that”.  But, even then I knew that the question was not so outrageous.  Almost 10 years later I have sat down to write these thoughts while on another well-known island, Great Britain.  During the intervening years since my island boy asked me the question, I have had the privilege to work with wildlife populations on islands surrounded by watery oceans and island habitats surrounded by oceans of human modified land.  These experiences have made me increasingly aware that we do in fact all live on an island. Maybe the ultimate island is Earth: the only planet we know that harbors life as it moves through the solar system, surrounded by an ocean of space.  More importantly it has become evident that the lessons of island living should serve as a warning to how we may continue to live on this one island home that supports us all.