World Elephant Day 2020: Taking Stock

Aug 13, 2020 | Commentary

By Rosie Awori – Bachelors Degree in Law, local community journalist specialising in African policy and wildlife conservation. Member of the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network handling youth affairs and communication

Every year on 12th August, we celebrate world elephant day. As the struggle continues, to save these keystone creatures from the brink of extinction, we pause and reflect on how the majestic beasts affect our humanity and all that they add to the earth’s bounty.  While all elephants represent a gentle strength, wisdom and courage, this year we will shine a light on the Tsavo elephants in Kenya.

The Tsavo elephants are known for their extraordinary tusks which can weigh up to 45 kilos each, and for their reddish skin, acquired from dusting and playing in the red oxide soil that carpets the Tsavo eco system. Presently, there are about 13,000 Tsavo elephants making them a staggering 1/3rd of Kenya’s population. Although the numbers have increased in recent years, poaching has played a devastatingly large role in reducing their numbers from the peaks of the past.

Elephants in the ecosystem

And while it may seem inconsequential, a deeper look would reveal the crucial role of elephants in the ecosystem and why now, during this global pandemic, these numbers need to rise. The Tsavo elephants, like elephants across the world, have a vital part to play in ecological processes in the bionetwork linking Kenya and Tanzania (Tsavo-Mkomazi). Elephants have a large body size, and equally large appetite, requiring a broad diet that includes over 100 plant species in the Tsavo ecosystem. They consume a wide array of herbs, branches, barks, fruits, grass and bulbs.

Their waste is a method of seed dispersal, and they spread about 22 plant species through “endozoochory” – edible fruits or pods attract the animals needed to scatter the seeds in their dung. This role is similar to that of the rhino, but with that species dying out it becomes frightening to imagine what would happen without the elephants.

And during the dry season the elephant tusks are the ploughs used to dig for water; this water is consumed not only by them but also by other animals in the savannah.  Due to their size they often modify habitats, in ways that would otherwise take a lot of manpower and resources to do. Their tusks also break apart thorny bushes and they pull down trees in some cases allowing for light to lower level plants – they act as tractors, clearing the plains and making room for new vegetation to grow.

Their dung contains a rich amount of nutrients from the many plants they consume and is an important source of food for insects such as dung beetles. The beetles are eaten by honey badgers and wild mice which are then eaten by other larger animals and so the circle of life goes on uninterrupted.

Thriving Ivory Markets

While the rest of the world shut down their ivory markets, albeit begrudgingly, the European Union and Japan maintain theirs under the guise of “old stock”. Studies have shown how new tusks can be aged in order to pass as old stock and enter these still-open markets. That means continued poaching; Tsavo’s 13,000 will only keep decreasing and… then what?

It is even more offensive to read the “recommendations” of the EU on protecting biodiversity in Africa, while they maintain ivory markets which are the bigger threat to biodiversity. The novel Coronavirus showed us just how connected we are; from a small market in Wuhan China, a virus spread that brought the world to its knees. With globalised illegal wildlife trade, elephants could removed from the equation, with alarming consequences.

As we celebrate elephants, their beauty and their majesty, it is sobering to think that we may lose a crucial species from our wild lands because the desire for trophies, wall hangings and other vanity objects seemed more appealing.