Hands off elephants / by Steven Kitoto

One of the largest known elephants was Jumbo, whose name is thought to be derived from the Swahili word for ‘boss’ or ‘chief.’ He is the reason we now use the word ‘jumbo’ to mean ‘huge.’

Ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years, according to a new study that provides the first reliable continent-wide estimates of illegal kills. During 2011 alone, roughly one of every twelve African elephants was killed by a poacher.

African elephants are the world's largest land animals. The biggest can be up to 7.5m long, 3.3m high at the shoulder, and 6 tonnes in weight. 

The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?
— David Attenborough

Elephants and humans share a long history throughout our civilization. The expanse of the African habitat and the enormous size and aggressive posture of the African elephant has allowed it to resist captivity. But the Asian elephant has lived alongside humans for over 4,000 years and is imbued with reverence, tradition and spirituality across many cultures. In Thailand, the elephant is a national icon: it has a national holiday designated in its honor and elephants can receive a Royal title from the King.

Yet while elephants have lived alongside humans for so long, there is still much we don’t know about them. With the largest brain of any land animal, they are smart, sentient, social and empathetic, qualities we strive for ourselves. We share so many characteristics with elephants that they may well be more like us than any other animal. But we are risking their future and, in the process, damaging the integral habitat required for biodiversity throughout Asia and Africa.

The trunk is an extension of the upper lip and nose and is used for communication and handling objects, including food. African elephants have two opposing extensions at the end of their trunks, in contrast to the Asian elephant, which only has one. Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers.

Their ivory tusks are the most sought after, but their meat and skin are also traded. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewelry – China is the biggest consumer market for such products.

Meanwhile, as the human population expands, more land is being converted to agriculture. So elephant habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented. This means elephants and people come into contact more often, and conflicts occur.

Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods – and may even kill people. Elephants are sometimes killed in retaliation. With human populations continuing to grow across their range, habitat loss and degradation will remain major threats to elephants' survival.

This means elephants and people come into contact more often, and conflicts occur. Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods – and may even kill people. Elephants are sometimes killed in retaliation. With human populations continuing to grow across their range, habitat loss and degradation will remain major threats to elephants' survival. A good thing is that, Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas. However, less than 20% of African elephant habitat is under formal protection.

Elephants are running out of space and time. Before we know it they will be gone — unless we collectively stop the senseless poaching and consumer demand for ivory, and allocate protected natural habitat in countries where elephants and other wildlife can thrive now, and in the future.

Because without elephants, just what kind of world would it be?

Without elephants there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat.
— Samuel Wasser, University of Washington