The quiet of elephants is one of the great mysteries of the animal kingdom. How can something so big move so softly, barely making a sound? I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with over one thousand elephants in the last few weeks in Tanzania, including two substantial groups of about 75 individuals each, one in Tarangire National Park and the other in Serengeti National Park. This is what I learned.
Watching elephants is a lesson in patience, family dynamics, sharing what you have, and taking care of others. Each elephant has a distinct personality that emerges the longer you watch and each of those personalities contributes to the social whole of the elephant
community. This bond between family members keeps young elephants safe as they venture beyond the reach of their mother’s watchful eyes. It ensures that everyone gets a turn at the water hole or mud bath. It means greeting each other thoughtfully after any separation, long or short. It is what keeps the herd vibrant and healthy, exploring other elephant communities, coming together, drifting apart, moving constantly in ordered disorder that makes seems to make perfect sense to the elephants as they go about their daily business.
Respect your elders.
The matriarchs know the rules and teach them to the younger elephants with gentle direction. They know where to go for the tastiest fruits, the tenderest grasses, the freshest water. And so the others follow because not to take advantage of that knowledge would be foolish. Certainly, younger elephants challenge the wisdom and experience of their elders – you can see it in their body language and their eyes. But as surely as they ask the questions, they accept the answers. The leaders never seem offended, but just continue to go about their daily business.
Walk gently in this world.
Being the largest land mammal on the planet must surely have its drawbacks, but elephants wear that mantle with unparalleled grace. They seem to tiptoe through the brush, their entire bulk silently and suddenly appearing or disappearing from a landscape that seemed either devoid or full of elephants only a moment before. Quiet rumblings of infrasound rarely detectable by the human ear keep them connected by a private language they are privileged to share. They use only what force and noise is necessary to protect themselves and their young, preferring to observe and indulge their insatiable curiosity with caution rather than participate in aggressive acts as they go about their daily business.
Elephants inspire me. We can all learn more about how to about our own daily business from watching them in the wild. It mystifies me that there are those who would wantonly slaughter elephants for their tusks, solely for financial gain. I cannot believe that those who demand ivory for ornaments understand exactly what the real cost has been. In fact, when questioned about where elephant ivory comes from, some purchasers have stated that they believe it is collected when the tusks fall out, like replaceable teeth. While it is true that elephants who stay in the heart of protected areas may be relatively safe, poaching of elephants has not stopped. It has increased again in recent years and any elephant who ventures out of a protected area or remains on its fringes is at high risk in any African nation that still has elephants. Antipoaching efforts must include a variety of approaches to make a dent in the killing. Enactment and enforcement of antipoaching laws, rigorous conservation measures, and education of the public, poachers, sellers and buyers, must be braided strategies to keep from losing the remainder of these gentle giants in our own lifetime.
The African Wildlife Trust in Tanzania is working on all of these fronts in an effort to keep Tanzania’s elephant populations alive and well. Live elephants, aside from contributing to healthy ecosystems, help to keep the tourism economy functioning and employing local people. One of the current measures undertaken by AWT is to collar elephants in an effort to facilitate tracking of herds. The idea is that if a collared elephant, tracked by GPS, begins to panic and flee, a poaching incident is likely occurring, allowing the immediate dispatch of enforcement personnel to the site. Given that a recent slaughter in Cameroon involved the killing of 300 elephants in one incident because no one responded, there is real hope that collaring elephants may provide a useful tool in the fight against poaching. However, collars are expensive – one collar, which may last only three to five years, has a cost of $10,000 USD.
I have set a personal goal of attempting to fund, with others, at least one collar a year for the next five years. I hope that you’ll help me with this effort as I certainly don’t have the funds to do this by myself. If $10,000 sounds like a lot of money, think about what you could reasonably give. If only 20 people would contribute $500 each, we could purchase our first collar. If you can only give $100, that helps. Working together, we may be able to make a real difference in a world that will continue to include elephants. Please contact me if you have any interest in helping with this effort.
In any case, I urge you to learn more about poaching and its effects on elephants, rhinos, and other animal populations. A simple google search turns up a wealth of articles but you can also keep an eye on dispatches from http://Africanwildlifetrust.org. If you need more inspiration, come with us to Tanzania and meet the elephants in person. Once they become your teachers, as they have become mine, you will surely become advocates on their behalf, even as you go about your daily business.