Every year, the world’s elephant populations continue to decrease despite funding efforts, outreach, publicity, and various foundations working tirelessly to protect these animals. It is estimated that there are under 400,00 African elephants left in the wild and this number has been steadily dropping by about 30,000 each year since 2005.
Jumbo Elephant - Photo by Joaquín Rivero
Right now, the three largest threats facing elephants around the world are poaching for the ivory trade, deforestation and habitat loss, and elephants being used in the tourism industry.
So how do we save the elephant population when all current efforts are failing to stop the decline in population? Conservationists are turning their efforts to education. By educating and stoking a passion for wildlife among local communities, especially in children, conservationists can develop a new appreciation for endangered animals.
What We Should Know
The first step in preserving the elephant population is knowing what threats they currently face. Threats vary for elephants depending on location and type of elephant. African elephants are most threatened by poachers who kill them for their tusks for the ivory trade industry. Asian elephants face loss of habitat due to deforestation and abuse in the tourism industry.
The Illegal Ivory Trade
Every year, at least 20,000 African elephants are killed for their tusks. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the international commercial trade in elephant ivory. Poaching rates dropped but began to rise again around 2010 because of a renewed interest in ivory products.
In 2016, the United State who at the time was second in the world for ivory demand, implemented a near total ban on elephant ivory clamping down on the illegal and unregulated domestic trade market. In 2017, other countries including China, the country with the highest demand for ivory, also closed the legal ivory market. Although these countries are taking steps to reduce the demand for ivory, it still exists and is now being traded illegally.
African Elephants with tusks
The high demand for ivory is driving the black market and poaching of African elephants. Conservation experts believe as much as 70% of global ivory demand comes from China despite the ban that is in place. The best way to lower this demand is to educate people about the ivory trade and the dangers it poses to not only elephants but the communities who live in the surrounding area.
The WWF is leading the way in stopping the illegal ivory trade by partnering with various retailers, social media platforms, tourism companies and creative agencies to raise awareness about the negative effects of the ivory trade. If we can educate people about the ivory trade and the cost of elephant lives for their tusks, it should lead to a decrease in demand for ivory.
Education and training are an important part in stopping poachers who prey on elephants. In Africa, the Kavango Zambezi Transfronteir Conservation Area (KAZA) works with the local community and government to educate and train game rangers and guards in antipoaching techniques. KAZA also works with local communities to educate them about elephants and reduce conflict with elephants.
In Asia, specifically Cambodia and Vietnam, the WWF works with park staff to protect the local elephant population.
Land Encroachment and Deforestation
In both Africa and Asia, the loss of elephant’s natural habitat not only effects the elephant’s abilities to survive, but also increases human and elephant conflict which results in the loss of both human and elephant lives. This problem is especially prevalent in Asia effecting the lives of Asian elephants. In Asia, nearly half of all the land inhabited by Asian Elephants has become fragmented. This reduces the size of habitats and forces elephant populations to move to new habitats.
When elephant populations fragment, another risk to the population is inbreeding. With fewer potential mates, the gene pool is limited which means that genetic defects or illnesses can become more prevalent. This will make the elephant population more vulnerable and
Providing protected areas for elephants to live has helped stabilize the population, however in Africa less than 20% of elephant habitat is under protection and in Asia, 70% of wild elephants live in unprotected areas. Providing protected land alone, will not keep elephants safe.
Asian elephant image
Human and Elephant Conflict
Negative interactions between elephants and humans can lead to revenge killings and a general intolerance or desire to help conserve the elephant population. This is one area where education can make a huge impact.
Educating local communities about the causes of elephant conflicts like habitat loss and working towards alternative solutions to protect human’s livelihoods against elephants, can lead to a positive behavior change.
Elephants in the Tourism Industry
Using elephants for tourism and entertainment is a practice that has a long, usually violent history. Elephants have been exploited in circuses, for trekking expeditions, and even as gimmicks for begging in the streets. These practices usually result in pain, injury, malnutrition, depression, and eventually death for the elephants involved.
Today, some of these practices are still in place and it is important to educate tourists about what kind of elephant interactions are positive, and what interactions harm elephants.
Harmful Tourist Practices
Trekking: Trekking or elephant riding is a very common tourist attraction in many Asian countries. Tourists will ride in a chair that is attached to elephants back on go on a tour through the jungle. Even though an elephant may seem large and strong, their backs are not designed to carry a heavy load like a horse for example. These elephants are forced to complete treks all day long without access to food and water. They are often injured from their harnesses and are prone to skin infections. It is rare to see a well-cared for trekking elephant. They are normally overworked, suffer from injury, and do not have consistent access to foot, water, and medical care.
Shows: In some parts of the world, elephants are kept in captivity and forced to perform in shows for tourist entertainment. When elephants are not performing, they are often chained and kept in unnatural conditions. What most people do not realize, is that to train elephants to perform, the trainers use cruel negative reinforcement techniques like whips, knives, and nails.
Painting: Much like elephants in shows, elephants that are forced to paint for tourist souvenirs are trained using harsh tactics. One technique people use to train an elephant to hold a paintbrush and move it across a canvas is sinking nails or a knife into their trunk when they want the elephant to change direction of the brushstroke. These elephants are left physically and emotionally scarred.
Positive Tourist Interactions
Elephants are amazing creatures and it understandable that humans want to learn about these animals. There are many ways for tourists to experience the beauty of elephants without causing the elephants’ harm.
Maasai Tribe in Kenya live amongst the elephants
Jeep Safaris: Jeep safaris allow tourists to experience elephants in their own natural habitat. On these tours, humans stay in the safety of a jeep and are given a tour of an animal reserve. This way, humans have a minimal impact on the wildlife but still get an up close and exciting observation of animals in the wild.
Jumbo elephant image while on safari in Africa
Elephant Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are another great option for tourists to experience elephants. These elephants are captive, but they are well cared for and living in the most natural habitat possible. These elephants are not forced to work or perform.
A good sanctuary will limit the number of daily guests to reduce the amount of elephant and human interaction. This is to protect the elephants from constant disturbances. Sanctuaries are meant to be a place of refuge and protection.
Outreach and Education
Education and community outreach are the two most important and impactful ways we can help protect elephants. With the help of child psychologists, experts, and conservationists, new programs are being developed to help communities closest to the elephant populations learn how to protect them.
These programs focus on educating people about threats that face endangered species like elephants, why these animals are an important part of our world and ecosystems, and finally, what steps and lifestyle changes need to take place to create long lasting change. Educational programs are most effective when they are presented to children at an early age. We need to change the way humans think and interact with wildlife to promote more conservation efforts.
Educating children about our environment and wildlife
Svetlana Gragayeva, founder of Virry, an app designed to help kids to better understand nature and the world around them, had these words to share, “The future of the world’s wildlife species rests on the tenacity of governments, conservation organizations and communities to take heed of studies such as the GEC and recognize the power of education in fighting poaching, conserving elephant and rhino habitats and mitigating human-elephant conflict. Guns may stop a poacher, but they won’t change mind-sets and they can’t build a society that is more engaged with nature.”
Educating humans about the importance of conserving our natural world the only way that we will be able to save and protect endangered species like elephants and their natural habitats.
Lauren Hulse is 31 years old and currently resides in Southwest Florida. She is an avid writer, traveler, adventurer, and animal lover. Lauren enjoys reading, writing, going to the beach with her two dogs, and using her voice to raise awareness for great causes.