Skip to main

To Save Elephants, We Need Different Approaches for Separate Species

How does one manage an animal that some people believe is a god or must be protected at all costs because of its intrinsic value, while others are terrified of it because they compete with it for food and water or wish to sell ivory to feed their family?

Elephants are one of the most iconic animals in the world. However, when it comes to how they should be preserved, there is a schism between conservationists.

A flyer with wildlife pictures

After dramatic population declines in the 1970s and 80s, elephants were banned from international trade in 1990 by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This international political decision is touted as the reason some elephant populations have rebounded today. Indeed, in some countries elephant populations have grown so much they are reported to be dangerous pests, devastating the protected areas where they are located and threatening the livelihoods of people in nearby villages.

But one species of elephant is in big trouble. In contrast to the better-known savanna elephants in eastern and southern Africa, forest elephants in western and central Africa are rapidly declining.

Fast-forwarding nearly 30 years, elephant conservation is still one of the most heated debates at the CITES Convention of the People (CoP); however, the topic has become more divisive.

The international policies decided at the CITES CoP have strong top-down control on the global ivory trade and major impacts on forest elephant conservation. This year contradictory proposals to completely protect or reduce trade restrictions on elephants were proposed by different elephant range states.

A woman and elder man smiling in formal attire
At CoP 18 with Dr. Grahame Webb, head of the Crocodile Specialist Group who allowed me to participate as part of his organization Wildlife Management International

Through the generosity of the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, I had the opportunity to attend the 18th CITES CoP in Geneva, Switzerland. I spent ten days learning from a variety of people—from private interest groups, to nonprofits, to voting party members. My experience highlighted the influence lobbyists possess and the essential role “Species Specialist Groups” have providing clear, honest communication to decision makers about the status of different species.

In the end, the parties were unable to agree and rejected all but one proposal concerning elephants, whereby elephants are no longer allowed to be shipped outside of their range states.

Gaining Insights on Forest Elephants

There is an urgent need for countries harboring elephants to effectively manage their populations. Behaviorally, morphologically and genetically African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are separate species. Officially designating them as such would enable the regions that proposed these contradicting proposals to govern their elephants as they view necessary.

As a PhD student at Duke, I have spent the last five years studying forest elephant behavior with the intent to help inform anti-poaching strategy in Gabon. By combining genetic and satellite technologies we are able to gain insight into where and when forest elephants are likely to form larger aggregations.

As I near graduation I intend to increase my involvement in forest elephant research and policy by providing clear, applicable research relating to forest elephant ecology and conservation needs. Participation in organizations such as Duke’s Forest Elephant Working Group that further our understanding of forest elephants can help inform the designation of African forest elephants as a separate species.

Originally posted on Medium

Caption for main image: At the Wonga Wongue Presidential Reserve, where I am collecting a fecal sample used for genetic analysis while following one of the GPS-collared elephants; a GPS-collared elephant in the forest (photo by Liam Sjolander, a field assistant on the project.