#WorldElephantDay: The secret lives of elephants and a woman's fight to save them

2018-08-10 06:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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A woman holds the trunk of a wild elephant

One elephant is poached every 15 minutes.

It's hard to believe that the largest mammal on land needs to fear such small creatures, but the African elephant is a species on the brink of extinction - all because their tusks are coveted as jewellery by humans. If elephants were to disappear off the face of the earth, the ecosystem would change dramatically or even collapse.

As World Elephant Day draws nearer, The Amarula Trust in partnership with WildlifeDirect will be stationing life-size ice sculptures of elephants in three cities - Johannesburg, Sao Paolo and Toronto - where the melting will signify the slow disappearance of elephants in the wild.

SEE: Mammoth task: How 30 elephants were moved from SA to Mozambique

Luckily for us, there are people and organisations prepared to fight for their survival, like Dr Paula Kahumbu, who has dedicated her career to the conservation of elephants. Based in Kenya, she's the CEO of WildlifeDirect and through this company helps combat wildlife crimes by tracking the trials in the Kenyan courts, advocating for better laws and better enforcement, and train prosecutors and magistrates so that the whole legal chain can be improved.

She talked to Traveller24 about why elephants are so important to her, to the world and the importance of women's voices in conservation.

A woman stands next to of a wild elephant

Paula Kahumbu standing with one of the elephants she's helping to protect. (Photo: Nick Aldrige, Amarula)

How did you become so fascinated with elephants?

Elephants weren't my first choice. It wasn't until my late teens when I actually first got involved with elephants, and at that time it was through the issue of poaching. It was very discouraging, in fact I avoided working with elephants because it was dangerous and I felt it was too late for them anyway. But later on I realised, because of the research that is going on in Kenya, that elephants are such extraordinary animals and so important to the vast ecosystems in our country.

We had some of the world's most famous elephant researchers uncovering extraordinary things about these animals - their behaviour, their social structures, their ability to communicate over vast differences in a secret language that we can't even hear. It was such an exciting time for Kenya - we had just burned the ivory, elephant populations were recovering and it just felt like supporting elephant conservation was going to be one of the most important things I can do in my life.

Do you have a precious memory of an elephant interaction?

I have loads! There are so many. When I first started thinking about doing research on elephants I went to spend two weeks with two women who work in Amboseli, the world's longest research population of elephants. These women know every single elephant by name and they can identify them even when they're on the horizon. They just look at them, their body, the way they walk, the way they interact with other elephants - they know exactly who they are.

I spent two weeks with these women learning the basics of elephants. We were out in the field one day and there was a huge bull that came walking towards the vehicle and they started laughing and calling his name. He came right up to the car. I was in the back, thinking we're about to be smashed, and these two ladies from the local community were laughing and showing me his card and explaining who this young bull is. This elephant clearly knew them, because he could hear their voices, and it just made me realise that elephants are just like human beings - we can relate to them very much like human beings.

That made me really fall in love with elephants.

PICS: Bees stop elephants from trampling trees in SA 

A woman holds the trunk of a wild elephant

(Photo: Nick Aldrige, Amarula)

Can you tell us a bit about elephants' matriarchal social structure?

It's really unique among mammals, and in so many ways similar to human beings. They are family animals that live in groups ruled by females. The matriarch tends to be the grandmothers - they are the oldest individuals in the family and they carry knowledge of generations, so they are the wise individuals that know where the group should go in times of stress, where the water is, where the food is, where the safe places are, and they keep everybody else in check. The females stay in the family, while only the males leave when they're like 13 years old.

It really reminds me of African traditional cultures where young men leave their homes and they have to go out and prove themselves before they come back. There are some things about them that are so like us, and then there are some things we simply can't comprehend - their brains are much more complex than ours and we'll probably never uncover those secrets and mysteries of theirs.

One of the most interesting things about elephants is that they are ruled by females, so it's quite natural that most of the world's top researchers on elephants are women, people like Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, myself and other women. It's not just that elephants are really interesting animals, they are animals that we can relate to, and we also have an important role to play as Africans.

Do you think women or men dominate the voices raised in conservation?

If you think about the world leaders in conservation, many of them are women. Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai, Sylvia Earle - we have some very powerful women's voices and I think it's important because we have perhaps a different take on stewardship of the planet. Of course when it comes to practical hands-on things, wildlife conservation, in Africa in particular, has become very much a militarised kind of problem. You look at rhino conservation and elephant conservation - it's all about anti-poaching, a very male thing. It's all about guns, militaries and its very much dominated by men.

I think as a result we have lost our voice as women in that it's not just about anti-poaching and going after people and seeing this problem as a very simple problem of poaching vs anti-poaching. It really is a problem for entire ecosystems. We need to protect the whole ecosystem, be good stewards, work with local communities, protect the environment and protect elephants because they play such a key role in sustaining these ecosystems.

We have staff in Nairobi that's mostly women and I think we as women are much better communicators. As a result, we do a lot of work with university students that we take into the field and do research with them. We also have a massive following in the Kenyan public, who I think find our work very appealing and they want to be a part of it. They want to say that we made a difference in Kenya or in Africa because of these campaigns.

SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: UK, Vietnam to ban their domestic ivory trade

A woman holds the trunk of a wild elephant

(Photo: Nick Aldrige, Amarula)

What is their biggest threat?

For every elephant that's killed through poaching, it's an individual that's part of a large family, because they only go for the ones with the big tusks, which means you're taking out the adult, the ruler of their societies - you're taking away the collective memory of a whole family or social system of elephants. And what you're left with is a bunch of children who don't really know how to behave and there's nobody in charge of them anymore. They can become unruly, they can become delinquent and of course babies won't survive. 

Every time elephants are killed and families are attacked, they remember that incident. They become traumatised, just as humans would, and become very aggressive and defensive. When families gang up like that, they can become destructive, not only destroying environments but also become dangerous to people - they're petrified so they would rather attack humans than let them into their area.

The poaching threatens everything, not just the numbers - it's the whole social structure and normal behaviour of elephants that gets undermined. At the same time that affects our economies. We depend on tourism and no tourist wants to come see scared elephants running around terrified of tourist vehicles, which is what's happening in some parts of Africa today.

SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Australia crushes ivory in symbolic protest

What can we learn from elephants?

Ha, there is so much we have to learn from elephants. In Kenya, for example, there's a tribe called the Maasai and they believe that elephants are in fact humans and that they are our spirits. If you want to be a good human, you only have to be like an elephant. Be wise, be compassionate, rule and protect your family fiercely, defend them and be gentle on the earth. 

There are loads of lessons that we can learn from elephants and we can translate their behaviour to improve the way that we behave as human beings. They're not vindictive, they don't fight for nothing, but they will protect each other and if an elephant is injured they will come to the defence of that elephant. If an elephant is troublesome, they will definitely punish it.

Being called an elephant is not an insult, it's more of a badge of honour.

What can the ordinary person do to fight for elephants?

If you see ivory on sale, don't buy it, no matter how attractive it might look, because it's driving the slaughter of elephants in the wild in Africa.

If you're not in the cities where the ice sculptors will be stationed, you can still support the campaign by going online, sharing our messages with the hashtag #DontLetThemDisappear and #WorldElephantDay. You can donate and stay up to date on all the stats through our website or any elephant conservation organisations.  

Saving elephants, it's not just about saving our tourism or saving a few little populations - we actually need elephants in our ecosystems for us to thrive - when elephants thrive we thrive.  

ALSO SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Hong Kong bans ivory sales in landmark vote

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