Elephant Conservation

blog post on elephant conservation issues, populations, birth control and culling width=

Elephants and their conservation

10 million years ago the first modern elephant made its appearance. Previous specimens were equipped with tusks in the upper and lower jaw, but this more modern version retained only the upper incisors and the molars developed into broad flat surfaces for grinding softer grasses and the tougher woodier herbaceous plants. This newer more modern version was so highly successful that about 2 million years ago, during the early Pleistocene period, it forged forth into Europe, Asia and eventually into North America, where it gave rise to the mammoths and mastodons. The only continents that the elephants failed to migrate to were South America, Australia and Antarctica. A million years ago there appeared the grass-eating elephant, Elephas, who disappeared from records a mere 100 000 years ago, at the same time that humans were developing from early Stone age to the Middle stone age. A close relative of Elephas was Loxodonta, the modern forerunner of the elephant, as we know it today, which moved out of the forested habitat and filled the vacuum created by the disappearance of Elephas.

Up until fairly recent times, 12000 years ago in fact, there was not only the two species of elephant, Elephas and Loxodonta, but also in addition to these there were two mammoth species and four species of mastodon living in North Eurasia and America.

11 000 years ago, only 2000 years after the appearance of the first humans, America lost 75% of its large mammals. Is it possible that early humans systematically hunted out the large mammals? Many scientists believe that long periods of glaciations caused the decline of many species of mega fauna, yet 16 of the world's ice ages passed without having much of an affect on the diversity of the large mammals.

Africa, by contrast, has lost only 10% of the large mammals since the last ice age. Reasons for this is believed that, in areas with colder climates lke North America and Eurasia, large animals that were killed would provide a group with enough food to last the long harsh winter, and the sub-zero temperatures would prevent the meat from spoiling. Whereas in Africa it would not be as feasible, as a small hunter-gatherer family unit would hardly be able to make much of an impression in a huge animal before the hot sun putrefied the meat.

In North Africa and Europe the demise of the elephant population was inevitable as the Roman Empire expanded and found an increasing demand for elephants to train for the war machine and on the sports front elephants were needed for circus games where they were pitted against humans in the arenas. By the times the games ended in A.D 600 these populations of elephant had been driven to extinction. Meanwhile elephants were thriving throughout Sub Saharan Africa. The African tribes trading ivory for trinkets from the Arabs were making minimal impact upon the herds. 200 years ago there was a drastic change as the ivory trade boomed, driven by the demand from Europe and North America and facilitated by the onset of the rifle. Populations were decimated and the only remaining viable populations left today are those in protected areas.

The crushing issue for elephants today is not the low numbers, but more importantly the lack of suitable habitat. Conservation groups, raising funds to save the elephants, use numbers as a scare tactic to induce people to get their hands deeper into their pocket. Millions of dollars has been raised on the backs of these population figures. Temporarily setting these actual figures aside let us look at where these figures originate from. Many of the African countries supporting populations of elephants are facing difficult times. Conservation is on a lower priority standing at the moment and thus decent funding is hard to come by. Departments charged with the protection of herds often do not have the manpower, vehicles, uniforms and often the money for salaries, let alone enough funding to carry out a fairly accurate census of population numbers. So, are these figures anything more than bureaucratic guesswork?

Many of the areas with sustainable numbers of mega herbivores under protection are fenced in, in an attempt to protect the herds within. Once we as humans erect a fence, which prevents the natural flow of genes from one area to another, it becomes our morale obligation to intensively manage and control these self same areas. Under protection many species will flourish, but with numbers increasing and being unable to migrate out to reduce the pressure, these populations can have a negative impact on a number of other species, so control is inevitable.

The Kruger National Park in South Africa, one of the most well-managed parks in Africa used the culling of herds to maintain numbers since 1967. In 1994, through pressure from animal rights groups the program was suspended while the park took to review the management policy and one of the principles accepted was that wherever possible, management of the population will be conducted by non-lethal means (translocation and/or contraception) However, where neither of these options is possible, culling still remains the only other option available and can be used. Bearing in mind that loss of protected habitat through burgeoning human populations is the major factor, relocation has a very limited life span.

There are two alternative methods of contraception that are receiving attention. At the outset, these seem to placate humane and ethical groups. Further research by scientists has shown that there is much work still needed to be done.

The two methods looked at are the immunocontraception and oestradiol implants. The immunocontraception uses porcine zona pellucida immuno-contraceptive vaccine (PZP) to stimulate the targets animals’ immune system to prevent sperm penetration of the ovum. There is some concern over a possible permanent effect on the female’s ovaries, which may cause permanent sterility. Research is continuing to determine if this is in fact so. Mating in elephants is normally a dramatic affair, with lots of chasing by the bull and a fair amount of disturbance for the rest of the females in the herd. Normally an adult cow would come into oestrus mate and then conceive. This cycle of events would normally take place every four years. With immunocontraception the cow mates normally, yet will not conceive, but returns to oestrus every 15 weeks. The frequency of mating and its accompanying disturbances is far more frequent and the possibility of side effects is not known.
In the oestradiol implant program females are each given five slow-release oestradiol - 178 implants which are inserted sub-cutaneously behind the ear in the neck area. After six months, eostrogen levels were expected to decline and females were to receive a second implant. This project was suspended before any females received a second implant. Oestrogen is a known carcinogen in humans and monkeys when used in doses required to prevent conception. Oestrogen is also known to induce abortions in pregnant females. Aborting an almost full term foetus will have serious consequences for the elephant cow. Females in a permanent condition of “false oestrus” would not be sexually receptive and continual harassment by the bulls is a likely scenario. Calves less than a year old are seldom found more than a meter from their mothers and the chances of them being trampled by the big bulls or even being prevented from suckling is high. The false oestrus of the females could possibly also keep the bulls in an almost permanent state of heightened aggression.

Three hundred years ago colonial rule arrived in Africa, along with the colonists came their European laws and customs. These laws and customs were strictly imposed on most of Sub-Saharan Africa and these ideologies with progressive refinements have been imposed ever since. The highly controversial “Ivory Ban” has not been the answer to the poaching problem and the illicit trade continues. Surely it is time for a radical new approach to the problem that would at least take the African’s needs into consideration.

Over the years wildlife has become a liability to many rural Africans. Wild animals raid their crops, predators kill the livestock and game scouts employed by governments to protect wild animals, invade their privacy, damage property and often they get beaten up. Is it any wonder, therefore, that rural people have a totally negative aspect about wildlife?

The poacher in Africa today, is seen in many regions as a modern day version of “Robin Hood”. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor in the way of meat, and money for information. Now, here now have rural people deriving a direct benefit from their wildlife, which up until now they have not had the luxury to enjoy.

Making wildlife Africa’s most lucrative product is another option. The idea is not to stop hunting, but promote it. Increase legal markets rather than decrease and the same with hunting fees, increase rather than decrease. The thought behind this strategy is, the higher the price the more valuable the commodity becomes. One crucial step here is the provision that the local communities have a direct benefit from the animal and fees. There will always be skeptics, but looking back at the campaign to ban all trade in ivory and how unsuccessful the project is, is it not time to place the responsibility of conserving elephants squarely on the shoulders of those who are directly affected.

At the moment there seems to be more questions than answers to this predicament.
As we can see there is no “simple solution “ to the long-term management of the mega herbivores, but the positive side is that there is a number of research projects are underway that are looking at alternatives. We as humans have to cast aside our emotions and determine what is best not only for the elephants, but also the impact any decision has on the many other species living side by side within the same habitat and that however distasteful it sounds to some, includes human beings and their needs.

The purpose of this article is not to take sides, but more importantly to illustrate that there are various aspects to this multi facetted predicament. Conservationists would only want you to read about things that would drive your hand deeper into your pocket or statistics that suit their current fund raising campaign. Farmers also will only relate the negative impact that wildlife has on their life and so it goes down the line. We are morally obliged to gather as much information, be as informed as possible and not look at a situation in isolation. We can, however; focus our attentions on particular predicaments, but we should never loose sight of the fact that it will always be part of a bigger picture. Any specie in direct conflict with man will ultimately loose the fight. The only option for the long-term survival of any species is if it has a value and if that specie is able to live in harmony with man.


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