Every year, on the 12th August, we celebrate World Elephant Day. World Elephant Day was founded in 2012 to raise global awareness of the threats facing elephants. Back in 2012, the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks accounted for the deaths of 36,000 elephants per year, or one elephant every 15 minutes! Today, whilst poaching remains a threat to elephants, rates have slowed, thanks in part to the growing awareness raised by World Elephant Day. However, on World Elephant Day 2019, we must recognise that there are even greater challenges facing elephants.
The global human population is growing, and with it, the amount of land required for human activities increases. Across Africa and Asia, areas once home to elephants are being converted for farmland, settlements and infrastructure. In doing so, elephants are squeezed into smaller and increasingly isolated fragments of land, where food and water are limited, and opportunities to move elsewhere are blocked by human-dominated landscapes. In these fragments, elephants are vulnerable to changing climates which may alter the resources available to elephants. If elephants try to leave, they often face conflict with people; elephants eat crops, damage infrastructure and can injure or kill people, and in retaliation, people seek to eliminate the offending individuals.
At the same time, young elephants are taken from the wild, torn from the sides of their mothers, to fuel the entertainment industry. Captive elephants working in circuses and tourist attractions around the world are regularly subject to mistreatment, loneliness, substandard living conditions and the resulting mental trauma.
Huge funding and efforts are required to recognise these threats and prevent them. Which leads to an important question: Why should we care about protecting elephants in the first place?
Elephants are smart, sentient, social and empathetic beings. Not only that, but elephants also play a vital role in preserving healthy ecosystems for the benefit of biodiversity and humanity alike. Elephants are key seed dispersers and nutrient recyclers, they maintain the balance of grassland-woodland habitats and the biodiversity they support, and even increase the capacity of forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Elephants also draw huge numbers of visitors to safari hotspots, boosting local economies and supporting human livelihoods and wellbeing.
With fewer than 400,000 elephants left in Africa and 40,000 remaining in Asia, there is a very real possibility that elephants, and the services they provide, could disappear in the coming decades. We can all help to stop this from this from happening. Put pressure on governments to ban the domestic trade of ivory, boycott experiences which misuse elephants for entertainment (and never ride elephants!), support organisations which are working towards human-elephant coexistence, and spread the word on World Elephant Day 2019.