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  • Writer's pictureDon Heyneke

World Elephant Day

Updated: May 21, 2020

The 12th of August is a day to celebrate one the world's most iconic and largest land animal, the African Elephant. Everyday but specifically, World Elephant Day, gives us another opportunity to share how special, important and how vulnerable these animals are over the 37 countries that they roam through throughout Africa.

Elephant Infographic

The reality is that the presence and the role of African elephants within ecosystems is incredibly important. There are many plants and animals that directly and indirectly rely on the presence of elephants in order to survive, by helping maintain suitable habitats for those species. In central African forests, Forest Elephants help maintain up to 30 percent of tree species in the second largest rainforest in the world. I find it difficult to wrap my head around how influential elephants are and what role they would have played a hundred or even thousands of years ago. Estimates suggest that there were 3-5 million elephants in the early 1900s and today it is shocking that statistics suggest that there are only 450 000 - 700 000 left in the wild. That is nearly a 90% decline in the African elephant population in the last 100 years and elephants have been roaming the planet for the past 55 million years.

Elephants play a pivotal role in shaping their habitat because of the enormous impact they have on factors ranging from fresh water to forest cover, I often wonder what these environments would look like without them... African elephant populations were severely reduced to its current levels because of hunting. In the 1980s, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions. In recent years, the growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has sadly led to a surge in poaching. Populations of elephants especially in Southern and Eastern Africa that once showed promising signs of recovery could be at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal trade of ivory.

The truth is, their current habitats and protected areas would never be able to sustain 5 million elephants, every resource would be depleted and it would not only affect the elephant population but it would affect all types of fauna, flora and the habitats would change dramatically.

However, there is a silver-lining...

Building on 50 years of experience, WWF is supporting a variety of projects and approaches in order to help tackle the major threats facing African elephant populations across the continent: illegal hunting for ivory and meat, habitat loss and degradation, and human-elephant conflict.

Elephants will continue to fascinate both scientists and general observers alike. They are recognised as being among the most intelligent creatures on earth. In fact, some enthusiasts believe that their intelligence rivals that of human beings.

Aristotle even said of elephants: "The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind".

Part of the reason that elephants possess such a superior level of intelligence is the structure of their brain. Their neocortex is highly convoluted, as it is in humans, apes and some dolphins. This is generally accepted to be an indication of complex intelligence. The cortex is thick and comprises of many neurons. The elephant is one of the few creatures (along with human beings) that is not born with survival instincts, but needs to learn these during infancy and adolescence. The brain is specifically designed to accomplish this sort of life learning. Elephants and humans have a similar lifespan, and plenty of time, approximately 10 years, is allowed for them to learn before they are considered to be independent adults.

In our years of guiding, we have been very fortunate to have spent hours observing the 'empathetic' behaviour and interactions of elephants within their herds. Each sighting enhancing our knowledge and love for these incredibly intelligent animals. There are so many special moments that are etched in memory, some of which are; mothers and the herd coming together as they nudge a calf up a slippery bank of a river or a herd walking through the bush as the calves follow closely behind with their trunks linked to the tail of their mother and just simply watching the way in which they interact with one another. These moments often leave us feeling in awe of the greatness of these animals. Having the opportunity to spend time with and to witness these special moments with elephants really makes you appreciate these animals and see the importance of nurturing our land and wildlife.

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