I was recently invited to talk to the Berkshire Mammal Group and given the very vague brief: “talk about elephants”. Well, I don’t need to be asked twice. I decided to focus on the future of elephants in an increasingly human-dominated Africa, and the talk proceeded somewhat along these lines… human population growth, conversion of elephant habitats to human-dominated landscapes, less space supports fewer elephants, human-elephant interactions reduce tolerance for elephants, management options include culling, translocation, fences and contraception. But whilst I put my presentation together, I felt impelled, as I often do, to justify why I and many others spend so much time and effort in ensuring a future for Africa’s elephants. I considered discussing many points that you have most likely heard before. For example: elephants are keystone species and maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystems in which they live; elephants are worth more alive than dead, and the money a single elephant can bring in through safari guests aids economic development of some of the world’s poorest nations; we are the cause of their decline, and without our stepping in, they will go extinct, it’s our moral obligation.
But whilst I agree that all of these are reason enough to save the elephant, they just don’t quite hit the nail on the head for me. Now, it has taken me some time to come to this conclusion, and I don’t think I would have found it without being lucky enough to have spent hours in the company of elephants, more hours reading about elephants and many more thinking long and hard about elephants (I’m lucky that my PhD demands this of me!). But I now have my own personal justification for all of the time and effort, and I hope that this may resonate with others too. So let me explain with the help of these three stories.
Elephants ‘read the newspaper’
One of my conservation heroes is a South African man called Lawrence Anthony (anyone considering themselves a conservationist or animal lover should read his books). In one of his books, he referred to the matriarch of his very special elephant herd ‘reading the newspaper’. He was describing the morning routine of Nana, the matriarch of the Thula Thula elephants. Each morning, Nana would take herself aside from her family and would stand in silence, gently flapping her ears and swiveling the tip of her trunk. Nana was busy picking up the latest ‘news’ across Thula Thula. First, she would ‘turn to the obituaries’ – her keen sense of smell could catch the scent of death, where the carcass lay, for how long, and who had been the unlucky animal. Next, she would ‘turn to the births’ – again Nana would use her trunk to smell new life. Then ‘to the weather’. She could smell fresh rain on the horizon or feel the rumble of thunder in the earth beneath her feet. And finally, the ‘elephant updates’. With elephants’ amazing ability to communicate over many kilometers, Nana knew the locations of distant elephants, know who they were, how they were feeling and what their plan was for the day. Having ‘read the newspaper’, Nana would use her many years of experience to decide on the course of action for day, ensuring her family were kept happy and healthy.
This summer, I had one of my best elephant encounters to date. We were waiting at Xander’s Pan, watching a hamerkop resting at the water’s edge. With our field of vision limited by binoculars, we didn’t notice the approach of three elephants until they were 15 meters away and the hamerkop had flown away (presumably because it saw the elephants that we hadn’t!). Approaching the pan and us was the dominant bull, Shayisa, his younger brother, Asiphephe, and a sub-adult male, Camo. Shayisa’s name means ‘to suddenly appear’ in Zulu, which was quite fitting on this occasion! Shayisa and Asi, being fairly experienced with onlookers, continued towards the pan to drink, but Camo was quite nervous of our presence. At just 9 years old, it was quite unusual to see Camo hanging out with the boys and away from his family. He followed very closely behind Shayisa and maintained close body contact with Asi, a sign that he was seeking reassurance from the older boys.
We watched as Asi and Camo drank and mud bathed. But rather than drinking from the pan itself, Shayisa found the pipeline filling the pan and in doing so he had access to the freshest water. As we marvelled at Shayisa’s initiative, so too did Asi and Camo, and before too long, they shared in both Shayisa’s experience and his fresh drinking water.
Whilst many may consider male elephants loners, they too have complex social systems and are just as involved in the elephant community as the ladies, as the next story will confirm…
They say it takes a village to raise an elephant. Indeed, elephant calves are born into big families full of love, and whilst there is no replacement for Mum, sisters, aunts and cousins will allomother baby elephants, helping to keep the calf safe and entertained whilst Mum has a well-deserved break. In turn, these young females gain valuable experience for when they have offspring of their own. And whilst this is usually down to the girls, I want to tell you about one very special case.
In 2014, Curve the elephant gave birth to twins, Dingaan and Shaka. Elephant twins are extremely rare and huge cause for celebration, but with two calves to raise, Curve was especially in need of allomothers. The only problem was, there were no young females in Curve’s family to fill this role. But rather than allowing the twins to run rings around their Mum, Curve older son and brother to the twins stepped up as allo-brother! He keeps the twins busy with lots of play sessions and guide them in their exploration of life. The twins are now two and a half years old and are growing up happy and healthy thanks to their Mum, Curve, and older brother, Luke, and now even have tiny tusks!
So, if I should ever need to justify why I do what I do, why I care, or why we should help elephants, my answer is this. When an elephant is lost, to whatever cause, we do not simply move one number closer to extinction, to biodiversity loss or economic collapse. Each elephant is a mother, a brother or a sister. Each elephant is a guide, a matriarch or a mentor. Each elephant is a friend. And when an elephant is lost, it takes with it a type of knowledge that cannot be read in books nor regained quickly, but is gathered over many decades through many experiences. Elephants themselves know this, they understand this great loss and they mourn. They absolutely share the same emotions we do. We cannot deny them this and I believe it is even more reason help save each and every single elephant.