African elephant

The African elephant

There are two subspecies of the African elephant which include the African bush elephant (loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (loxodonta cyclotis). Genetic analysis conducted by the Natural History Museum indicates that the habitats and physical characteristics of the two species are distinct. However, the diet, lifestyle, and mating habits are remarkably similar. For instance, they both display the same level of social behaviour and intelligence, as well as a sharp memory and a mode of communication that combines vocalizations and infrasounds. Infrasounds are low frequency waves that elephants use to detect food and water beneath the earth’s surface and to listen to one another over relatively greater distances. As the largest animal on land, they contribute to the stability of the ecosystems in which they inhabit. They must therefore be protected in order to prevent their extinction and avoid future calamities.

Historical distribution of the African elephant 

Once upon a time, millions of elephants roamed across the entire continent of Africa. The wildlife resources were important to the economic development interests of powerful European countries during the scramble and partition. So, they initiated the conservation of wildlife with the Convention for Preservation of Animals, Birds, and Fish in Africa held in 1903 in London, UK.

A community of naturalists, hunters, leaders, and conservationists were advocating for creation of protected areas. The Virunga conservation area in 1925 which included the national parks of Virunga in DR Congo and Volcanoes in Rwanda became Africa’s first protected areas. Some of the oldest protected areas of Africa include Kruger in South Africa (1926), Akagera in Rwanda (1934), Garamba DR Congo (1938), Tsavo East Kenya (1948), and Murchison falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks in Uganda (1952).

At that time, big game hunting was at its peak as a sport. Hunters identified the Big 5 animals including African elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions, and leopards as the most difficult to hunt on foot. In particular, the population of elephants was decreasing unnoticeably due to hunting along with poaching and illegal ivory trade in Africa. In 1973 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was signed to ensure that such trades weren’t going to threaten the survival of species.

Given that conserving animals required collaboration, many African states joined the agreement. Estimates made by then indicated that there were still over 1.3 million African elephants. In a span of 10 years forward widespread killing reduced the population to 600,000 individuals. CITES called for a worldwide ban on illegal international ivory trade in 1989. Synergies were also developed under the International Elephant Trade System including Traffic to track unauthorized elephant ivory related products and Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) in the wild in Africa with the aid of remote computer systems and personnel.

Despite the ban, elephant numbers have continued to decline by almost 85%. The savanna elephant population is estimated to be less than 415,0000 individuals recorded according to the recent Great Elephant Census survey 2016 done across 37 African states. African forest elephant populations have also decreased by over 65%, with an estimated 100,000 individuals remaining in the wild of which Gabon alone is famous for harboring 95,100, which is almost 70% of all African forest elephant population.

The African forest elephant

African elephant

The forest elephant is distinguished from the other species by its smaller size, darker skin tonation, round ears, and a hairy trunk. Males and females  weigh between 1,800 to 5,400kg and can move at a speed of 39 km/hr. The estimated height at the shoulder is between 1.6 and 2.9 meters (8 to 10 feet). Tusks grow horizontally for 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 inches), pointing downward with each weighing between 23 and 45 kg (50 and 100 lb). African forest elephants live in social herds of 2-8 individuals that tend to move in separate smaller groups of 3-5 animals. The lifespan of forest elephants in the wild is between 55 to 80 years. They can eat 300 kg of plant matter per day and the diet mostly contains tree leaves, fruits, and bark, grasses, and herbs.

The habitat range of African forest elephants

As their name suggests, forest elephants survive mainly in primarily lowland dense tropical forests in central and west Africa. Besides, forest elephants in parts of East Africa mainly in South west Uganda live in both lowland and mountainous tropical forests above 2,000 meters above sea level. West African countries with forest elephants include Gabon, Cameroon with over 400, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, and Ghana. In central Africa, they can be found in the  DR Congo, Central African Republic, and Republic of Congo. Uganda is the only country in East Africa with forest elephants. They live at 2,000 meters above sea level in Bwindi impenetrable and Mgahinga gorilla national parks. Forest elephants in the country are also found in the Ishasha wilderness in Queen Elizabeth, Kibale forest, and Semliki national parks, and Toro Semliki wildlife reserve.

The African bush elephant 

African elephant

The African bush elephant, also called the savanna elephant, is the biggest mammal on land and weighs between 3,000 up to 7,000 kg. The great size allows them to move at speeds of up to 40 km/hr and cover a distance of 30 miles. Savanna elephants have gray skin, but depending on the places to live, they may seem differently. For instance, the elephants in Tsavo national park, Kenya have become red due to the red dirt soils. Females grow to a height of 2.2 to 2.8 meters while adult males can reach heights of 3.2 to 4 meters. The ears of savanna elephants resemble an African map and grow to be 6 feet long and 5 feet broad and function as a cooling fan. The tusks grow up to 2 meters curving upwards. Unlike forest cousins, the savanna elephants live in larger social groups between 10 to 20 meters. Herds are led by females, which also take care of the offspring. They can live for 60 to 75 years in the wild in a range of habitats, including marshes and floodplains like those in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Males become independent at the age of 6 years and females start to reproduce at 11 years, giving birth to one calf after 4 to 5 years. The gestation period is 22 months.

Threats to survival of the African elephant 

Threats to African elephants include poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, conflicts, and the illegal international ivory trade. Poaching is the biggest threat with estimates alleging that over 50 elephants may be killed everyday across Africa for their tusks that yield ivory. As a symbol of purity, ivory in particular for elephants has been used for centuries to make a variety of products. From ornaments such necklaces, crafts, buttons, to medicine.

The USA and Asian states like China and Vietnam have the highest demand and the annual global illegal ivory trade is valued at $23 according to WildAid. It also indicates that a single pound of ivory goes for $3,300 yet a single tusk can weigh about 50 – 99 pounds. Poachers get a lot of money which puts the lives of elephants in danger. Commercial sale of ivory was first banned in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). China banned domestic trade in 2017 and the European Union (EU) followed in 2021.

The USA has also been crushing or burning ivory stockpiles to reduce the circulation on the market. Despite such good measures, there are shortfalls to the ban and illegal ivory trade goes on cunningly in a number of ways. For instance, the EU still allowed the sale of ivory that is older, particularly within the member states; ivory that dates to 1947 is okay to sell. That which comes from Africa must be older than 1990. People take advantage of this provision to taint ivory with tea to make it look older than it is. Furthermore, ivory is also sold online via E-commerce sites such as ebay, where real ivory is labeled as cow or ox bone. Many African countries have large ivory stockpiles or are used as transit routes for ivory.

Habitat loss 

Natural areas continue to be under pressure due to rapid population growth, which results from high birth rates and increased life expectancy. Overall, the population of Africa by 2030 will reach 1.6 billion according to the African Development Bank report 2012. The demand for more land for agriculture, infrastructure, and fossil fuel development directly or indirectly leads to loss of habitat and fragmentation.

For instance, the ongoing oil and gas development in Murchison falls national park in western Uganda and East African Crude Oil Pipeline. Today, African elephant protected areas represent 9% of total land area across the 38 range states. This means that areas where elephants previously lived have either been fragmented or completely occupied. Most protected areas are no longer interconnecting, which has made the migration of elephants in search of food, water, or safe havens rather difficult.

Elephants are left confined and when they do escape into the villages human-elephant conflicts happen. The solution to this problem is to try to recreate ancient migration routes and improve security and connectivity of protected areas especially across borders. For instance, the Greater Virunga Transboundary Conservation Program has helped to create a safe haven for elephants to move between Queen Elizabeth and Virunga national parks in Uganda and DR Congo respectively. The Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor has created a 14 km corridor allowing migration across Samburu and Laikipia plains in northern Kenya. Elephant migration can also be witnessed in the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem on a safari to Kenya and Tanzania.

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