Elephants are familiar, majestic, sociable and — like so many wild creatures we share planet Earth with — in trouble.
The threats are the usual suspects but, increasingly, the deepening climate crisis is having a growing and disproportionate effect, owing to drought, famine and overpopulation, exacerbated by overconsumption.
In areas where elephants still cling to much of their former range — Botswana’s Chobe National Park and the marshlands of Botswana’s Okavango delta, a new, unexpected problem has presented itself: Too many elephants, crowded into too small an area. Already-large elephant herds are growing larger, which in turn is putting more strain on what precious little tree cover and water resources remain.
It’s World Elephant Day today.
That would normally be a day for celebration. As with World Lion Day a few days ago, though, the 2019 edition is more appropriately a day of reflection than a day to celebrate.
It’s a day to reflect on the things that make elephants unique, that give us wonder and joy, and give those who’ve dedicated their lives — and in some cases given their lives — the energy and determination to dig down even deeper.
This World Elephant Day, it’s worth noting that, in addition to being amazing animals, elephants actually make life better for us, often in surprising ways. The conservation NGO Human Nature and the filmmakers behind the documentary My Africa recently singled out four ways.
Elephants plant trees and help fight climate change.
Recent studies show that elephants help protect forests by distributing the seeds of trees. Because they roam over such wide distances, elephants play a key role in spreading tree seedlings.
Scientists have documented lower tree diversity in forests that have lost elephants. Keeping forests healthy ensures trees continue to store carbon in their trunks, roots and soil, which in turn helps reduce the effects of climate change.
Protecting elephants reinforces local safety and security.
Poaching and wildlife trafficking undermine the safety of local villages by provoking violence between hunters and communities. At numerous conservancies throughout Africa, such as Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, rangers are trained, credentialed police reservists, who respond to both wildlife and non-wildlife crimes in the area.
Elephants don’t just look after elephants.
Elephants are engineers. They push over trees, which encourages the growth of grasslands. They excavate waterholes and fertilize the soil, which helps other animals survive. They call it the circle of life for a reason.
Elephants generate much-needed tourist revenue.
A thriving tourist trade enables elephants to bring in money for local communities. A study estimated the tourism value of a single elephant at $1.6 million USD throughout its lifetime.
There’s a reason Botswana remains southern Africaʼs most prosperous country, despite the recent lifting of the ban on trophy hunting. Tourism — most of it centred in the countryʼs verdant, wildlife-rich northwestern corridor — accounts for about 10% of the countryʼs economy. That figure has only grown as Botswana’s reputation as a safe, high-end travel destination has strengthened.
The crisis facing the world’s remaining wild elephants may be dire this World Elephant Day, but if Botswana’s past experience proves anything, it’s that there’s a reason for hope — however small.