Elephants Get Unlikely Help -- But Is It Enough?

Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Wikimedia Commons
An experiment reveals that elephants not only cooperate, but that they understand the logic behind teamwork. Jorge Ribas reports on the findings.

Tourists, basketball players and dogs would seem to have little in common, but all three are helping to protect elephants from imminent extinction.

On this World Elephant Day, an estimated 420,000 elephants roam the African continent. In 1980, the elephant population there was around 1.2 million. As of now, ivory poachers kill 35,000 African elephants each year, often in bloody massacres that leave entire herds decimated.

“The level of killing is clearly not sustainable,” Craig Sholley, vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation, told Discovery News. “Unless we act quickly and forcefully, elephants in the wild could go extinct in our lifetime. That would be a grave loss.”

Three species of elephants are now recognized: African forest elephants, African savannah elephants and Asian elephants. The latter only consist of about 40,000-50,000 individuals. All three types are targets of poachers.

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Ivory symbolizes prestige and wealth in Asian countries, where demand for the hard, white material continues to grow.

“Phenomenal affluence exists in China now, with billionaires and others wishing to tout their wealth by purchasing ivory,” Sholley explained. “Many people in China have no idea that elephants must be killed in order to obtain their ivory.”

He said that Chinese presence in Africa has dramatically risen in recent years, with some 1.5 million workers in Africa now. Many are low paid, seeing ivory as a form of “take-home social security.” Numerous African locals, hoping to make a significant amount of fast cash, are also engaged in poaching and other wildlife trafficking.

To fight this illegal activity “rangers are risking their lives on a daily basis,” Sholley said, adding that even poachers who are nabbed are not penalized much. Airport police, rangers and others are now employing dogs to sniff out ivory and other illegal goods. He hopes that racketeering laws may be applied to the criminals, leading to stiffer penalties.

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