We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.
“If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so,” said Peter Corneille. In fact, an elephant’s brain resembles the human brain in structure and complexity. Our brains are designed for life-long learning.
We share many emotions and dysfunctions with African forest elephants – love, compassion, anger, joy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is why it’s sad that these are the most threatened elephants globally, and they are, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), both critically endangered and decreasing.
For African female forest elephants, giving birth is the most exciting occasion in their world. It’s when the greatest love is felt by so many women elephants.
When birthing starts, all females close ranks around the mother, kicking dirt and soil to distract predators from the baby mama’s smell. The calf is born to blares, bellows, and stomps. The women also kick sand and dirt over the newborn to protect its fragile skin from the sun. The trumpeting doesn’t cease. Jen Hatmaker says “It’s a female celebration of new life, of sisterhood, of something beautiful being born in a harsh, wild world.”
Female herds travel with the calves, and they all watch over each other’s little ones, allowing calves to thrive under their communal protection.
The second most exciting occasion for elephants is reunions with families or friends. In the wild, reunions start with a call 25 miles away. When nearer, they run faster. When within sight, they gallop and sweat profusely. Upon embrace their ears flap noisily, trunks entwine, they spin in circles, rub each other, and defecate, and urinate, the utmost expression of immense happiness, punctuated by trumpet sounds, howls, and shrillings.
Elephants are intelligent, reasonable, and capable of complex deliberation. They learn new things and adopt new ways with new encounters and/or experiences. They imitate sounds and show compassion by helping other species, including humans, who may be at risk. They also self-medicate.
Researcher H. T. Dublin watched an elephant herd for one year. One day, a heavily pregnant elephant walked miles away from their usual food source. She found a plant that Dublin had never seen eaten by an elephant before. She ate everything but the stump. Four days later, the elephant delivered a healthy calf. The plant, Boraginaceae, is eaten when a birth is delayed.
Dublin learned that Kenyan women also eat this plant to induce labor or abortion. Boraginaceae is a relative of borage, which is used by Mediterranean women to induce labor.
An elephant will give you several signs as a warning before they charge. It will flap its ears, smash bushes, throw dust, and trumpet loudly. To avoid an attack one should stay calm, quiet, and give them all the space and distance that they desire. One example of an elephant attack is here. Sometimes, an elephant is angry because of a food shortage, or it recalls an experience it had with a poacher.
Researchers say elephants remember everything, the good and the bad. They remember who hurt them, and they carry grudges. They also experience mental disorders, such as psychological flashbacks of mass murders from decades back. It’s similar to war veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traumatized herds are very cautious. They look over their shoulder warily. “They have probably seen family members killed,” said Andrea Turkalo, researcher, adding, “A mammal that has a brain that big and is so conscious of family ties misses family members who were killed.”
Elephants in captivity are prone to neuroticism and depression. Circuses are particularly cruel. A baby elephant still at the milking stage will be tied on all its feet and pulled away from its mother. The calf is then punished for any natural elephant behavior. Elephants don’t belong in circuses.
In the wild, elephants are highly social. They play humorously, bathe together, help one another, and seek food together. African forest elephants are smaller than other African elephant species. Their ears are more oval-shaped and their tusks are straighter and point downward. Their skull shape and skeleton differ in size.
In describing elephants in the wild, Turkalo said, “When an elephant purrs or sweetly squawks she is saying “here I am, where are you, I’m going”.
African forest elephants used to reign freely over dense rainforests in the west and central Africa. Today, its natural distribution is reduced to one-fourth of its original size. Most of them are in Gabon.
Conservationists say Gabon is the final bastion for forest elephants. Its human population is only 2.3 million, and most of the country consists of forest areas. There are 95,000 African forest elephants in Gabon.
How African forest elephants are counted
Because they are hidden by forest trees, forest elephants’ numbers are determined by “dung counts” to determine their density and distribution.
For three years, researchers walked seven miles daily through Gabon’s thick forests, rivers, and woody wetlands, and analyzed 2,500 DNA samples to count how many elephants lived per patch of land explored.
Forest elephants have drastically declined over recent decades, said Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).
Decimation and recovery
The IUCN noted that 86% of all elephants in Central Africa were decimated in the last 31 years, and yet poaching and habitat loss have increased.
“Recovering these populations is vital for the forests but needs commitment across communities, companies, and government working together to achieve success,” said Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation, Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
An elephant’s paradise
For an elephant, Gabon is an elephant’s paradise. The sight of an elephant walking along the beach, then suddenly a whale jumping high above the waters in the background is an arresting view. Almost all of the country is forest land, and only 3.2 million people live there.
However, threats are encroaching upon the elephants. Here are some threats:
Poaching. The African Wildlife Foundation estimates that 35,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa. Today, the high demand for the African forest elephant’s ivory is why they’re poached. Its ivory is more rigid and thick, making it easier to carve. Yao Ming was right when he said, “Only elephants should own ivory”.
Loss of habitat. Pressure is intensifying from people who want to convert wildlands and elephant habitats to agricultural and other land use.
Dr Kathleen Gobush, lead assessor, IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, said the need to “creatively conserve and wisely manage these animals and their habitats is more acute than ever”.
Dr. Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director-General said, “Several African countries have led the way in recent years, proving that we can reverse elephant declines, and we must work together to ensure their example can be followed.”
People vs. elephants. African forest elephants have been invading the farms of the Gabonese and eating their crops and killing on average 10 people annually. Global warming has drastically lessened the forest fruit these last 40 years. Lee White, Gabon’s minister of water and forests said “climate change is starting to impact the forest. And that means the elephants are hungry.”
Conflicting nations. Conflict among nearby countries such as Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Congo has obliterated herds of elephants near Gabon, researchers note.
Low reproduction rate. Reproduction is vital for a thriving elephant population in the long term. However, African forest female elephants breed slowly. They reach sexual maturity from ages 14 to 17. At this stage, most males fail at mating. They need to be much older to successfully breed. A female forest elephant only conceives every three to nine years, giving birth to only one calf, and very rarely, twinning. African forest elephants live up to 70 years of age.
What is being done
Gabon homes more than half of Africa’s forest elephants. This necessitates counter-poaching. Poachers have won the war for ivory in Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where almost all elephants were killed.
In Gabon, the international community is providing financial support, and a small U.S. military team is training Gabonese park rangers on ways to save its African forest elephants.
Anti-poaching measures, legislative support, and land use planning are vital to fostering human-wildlife coexistence and are key to elephant conservation. Some forest elephants have stabilized in well-managed conservation areas in Gabon.
“The health of our planet depends on the health of elephants and the ecosystems they inhabit, which is why Global Wildlife Conservation supports the Elephant Crisis Fund to fund groups across Africa who work to save, recover, and manage elephant populations,” said Dr. Barney Long, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Senior Director of Species Conservation.
Ecological benefits of African forest elephants
African forest elephants eat grass, leaves, seeds, tree bark, and especially fruit. Some 70 to 90 percent of their days they forage and consume 100 to 300 kilograms of food. The food comes out as dung filled with seeds.
The dung allows the seeds to germinate, making forest elephants the ‘farmers of the forest’. If there are no more forest elephants, many plant species and forest trees will be lost. Trees are nature’s carbon controllers. When they photosynthesize, they get carbon dioxide from the air, bind it with sugar, and release oxygen.
Trees also improve water quality by collecting and filtering the rain, before it’s slowly released to streams and rivers. Plus they help hold back erosion and floods. With trees, biodiversity and genetic resources are maintained.
Elephants deserve our attention. To paraphrase Peter Matthiessen, “I can watch elephants for hours. Sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage.”