The African elephant is under threat

The biggest threat to elephants in Uganda and globally is habitat loss. PHOTO By Edgar R. Batte

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed March 3, the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as World Wildlife Day. It is aimed at celebrating and raising awareness of the world’s wild fauna and flora. As part of events to celebrate the day, Uganda’s ministry of Tourism has organised a marathon whose aim is to raise awareness, not only about the plight of elephants - which are under threat - but all wildlife species.

Chimpanzees are said to be some of the closest relatives of man with 99 per cent nearness but the elephant is not far in Intelligence Quotient (IQ. The land mammal has very good memory that can last 10 years.

A story is told of an elephant in Kasese that was injured by some people on an expedition. It kept memory of the incident and when they returned eight years later, it could remember and revenged the earlier incident.
What is more is that an elephant has ability to pass on memory and emotion to another generation. It is one of the most sensitive animals.
But it is not for its memory that it has been a target of threat. It is for its tusks that have ivory, so when elephants are killed, tusks are removed, sold and made into anything from jewellery to religious objects.
Conservationist Achilles Byaruhanga explains that poaching is a big issue and there are underlying factors.
And whereas the whole blame may be put on international cartels and criminal gangs and the market in some Asian countries, there is also poverty challenges at home.
“It becomes so attractive to kill an elephant to cash on ivory when communities have few alternative options for livelihood. Communities are easily led into poaching because they have no income generation alternatives,” he argues.

Gone in 10 years
At current poaching rates, elephant populations may not survive 10 years in the wild. Byaruhanga says that by the end of 2015, elephant numbers had increased in Uganda despite increased poaching in many other countries.
Uganda’s elephant population is estimated at 5,200. UWA’s deputy director conservation, Charles Tumwesigye, the population is showing a steady increase having been reduced by poaching from around 30,000 in the 60s to 1,800 by 1991.
“Since 1991, we have seen a steady increase to 2,400 by 2000, 4000 in 2006, 4,400 in 2010 and 5,200 in 2014,” he says.
The next countrywide census will be conducted in 2017.
Elephant range in Uganda has greatly reduced since the 60s. Current distribution of elephants restricts them to protected areas.

According to United Nations, World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora and to raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that conservation provides to people.
The theme, “The future of wildlife is in our hands” reinforces the inextricable link between wildlife, people and sustainable development.
“On this World Wildlife Day, I call on all citizens, businesses and governments to play their part in protecting the world’s wild animals and plants. The actions taken by each of us will determine the fate of the world’s wildlife. The future of wildlife is in our hands,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

Human-elephant relations
The relationship between elephants and communities is most times not good. Where there are no barriers like trenches, Tumwesigye says elephants move from protected areas and destroy community gardens and other property resulting in serious human-elephant conflicts.
He says elephants are destructive and when they pass through a garden even if they do not crop raid, the damage caused by trampling is still big enough.
Byaruhanga observes that the biggest threat to elephants in Uganda and globally is habitat loss.
“The habitable areas for the biggest animal on land has been shrinking over time and now elephants are living in confined areas called national parks,” he explains.
This has meant that the mammals do not move as they would liked. The consequence of this is that there are incursions with people and destruction of crops or houses creating conflict with people.
This may result in retaliatory killing or even poaching for ivory, the most prized part of an elephant. But that has not been the case. UWA has taught communities ways through which they can deal with the wild animals.

Babu Olanya, a warden at Murchison Falls National Park says that some of the methods locals use is mixing grease and chilli on ropes then tie them around their gardens. The elephants are irritated and throw-up at the smell of chilli.

African Wildlife Foundation (Awf) communication officer, Abiaz Rwamwiri, explains that the rudimentary method has helped increase food security. A good relationship between communities and the park, and good attitude towards conservation efforts is being forged.

Awf is funded by United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) and it implements a biodiversity program that follows a modelling strategy through the ‘Conservation Enterprise Development Model’.
Besides the chilli, locals have also come up with more methods to deal with problem animals. Digging trenches is another. The trenches are a metre wide and a metre deep. Animals cannot jump over the trenches for fear of falling in.
Byaruhanga argues that the relationship between communities and people is a hate-love one.

“In some cases where communities are getting support from UWA and others benefiting from tourism activities, communities are largely friendly. It will be in a few cases where there may be conflict due crop raiding,” he states.
He adds that the laws do not provide for compensation due to destruction of property by wildlife. The conservationist observes that in cases where communities face destruction of crops, houses etc, there may be animosity between the animals and the population. “This may lead to persecution of the wildlife including elephants,” he further argues.

Uwec’s Atim suggests people need to understand wildlife and for this to happen, they need to be educated.
“Education is key. Communities living near protected areas need to be sensitised about wildlife in general, what they are, of what benefit they are and the dangers they pose,” Atim observes, adding that once knowledge sets in then communities’ issues need to be addressed.
“In our work with communities around the Murchison Falls, we found that there is a section of people that just carry on legacy. Their great grandparents were poachers. Majority, though, do it for survival, so if we can provide alternative livelihood sources, we can sort out a large number of those that engage in the practice for survival,” he elucidates.
She likes the new approach by UWA under which they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with communities to farm bees within a certain radius of the park.
The approach is two-fold because it is all-inclusive where community members will feel a part of the resource and they will do anything to ensure that the resource is protected.
Animals like elephants fear bees so they keep within their parameters and this will reduce their movement closer to human settlements,
“Such initiatives at the end of the day, benefit both the animals and the locals and it is very important for the locals to feel that this is their resource. They can only understand this better if they are involved in some way,” she observes.

Elephant distribution countrywide

UWA’s deputy director conservation, Charles Tumwesigye says the highest population of about 2,900 is in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Murchison Falls National Park hosts the second largest population of about 1300 followed by Kidepo Valley National Park with about 550 elephants. Other populations occur in Kibale National Park, Toro/Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Ruwenzori Mountains National Park and Katonga Wildlife Reserve.
The steady increase is attributed to restoration of law and order and good governance in the country that has controlled poaching in protected areas. Some elephants also moved from Virunga in DRC to Queen Elizabeth in Uganda during the time of insurgency in eastern DRC. Elephants always move away from armed conflicts and are greatly affected by insecurity.
“Uganda is estimated to have more than 5,000 individuals with 2,900 in Queen Elizabeth National Park and over 1300 in Murchison Falls National Park. Other populations are scattered in other parks such as Kidepo Valley National Park and some forest parks like Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Kibale National Park, etc,” he explains.
But as tour operator Amos Wekesa reveals, more than 200 elephants were killed in Queen Elizabeth alone in the recent past. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, 35,000 African elephants are killed annually, a revelation they made during the World Elephant Day last August.
With the announcement, they kick-started a campaign dubbed ‘96 elephants’, which is the estimated number of elephants that die each day.
Belinda Atim is the public relationsoOfficer (PRO) of Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC). She explains, “It is humans who do the poaching, destroy habitats and in the case of the elephants have caused the loss of about 800, 000 elephants in the last three decades.”

Poaching, a global threat

Charles Tumwesigye, the UWA deputy director conservation, confirms that poaching for ivory remains the biggest threat to elephants and that is despite the international ban on ivory trade. There is a thriving black market for ivory especially in eastern Asia which is a major driver for elephant poaching in Africa to supply the market.

He adds, “Poaching is a very big threat. Generally in Africa, most countries are posting reducing numbers of elephants while ours are increasing. We cannot thump our chests and celebrate because once the elephants are finished in some neighbouring countries the commercial poachers may shift their guns to Uganda.”

The number of ivory seizures in East Africa, he observes, is also increasing indicating that more elephants somewhere continue to die. The threat of poaching is therefore very big and real.

Other threats though not major in Uganda include; shrinking habitat (remaining habitat for elephants is in protected areas) and human- wildlife conflicts (caused by reduced range for elephants),” he states.
The Clinton Foundation, which seeks to change life in global communities, expounds that illegal ivory trade is buoyed by rising demand. China and Thailand’s increasing affluence, as well as the growing middle class elsewhere in Asia, has been a key contributor to the increasing demand for ivory.
The foundation’s vice chairperson, Chelsea Clinton writes that it is not surprising that as the demand increases, so too does the price of tusks and ivory and the tragic incentives for elephant poachers.
According to a recent Washington Post article, Savannah elephant tusks sell for up to $1,000 (about Shs3.3) per 0.45 kilogrammes, with forest elephant ivory often fetching an even higher price given its prized pinkish hue.
“Yet, it’s not just animal poaching or the illegal trade of animal parts that has enveloped within this crisis – poachers are putting park rangers in danger too. In the last decade alone, 1,000 rangers in 35 different countries have been killed,” she writes on the foundation’s website.
In an analysis by the BBC, conservationists suggest that almost one-third of the land where African forest elephants were living 10 years ago has become dangerous for animals, since poachers can access these areas using road networks meant for logging.
UWA’s Belinda Atim says the rate at which humans are killing elephants is faster than the rate at which they reproduce so if the world, or conservationists, do not find a strategy fast, elephants will go extinct.
“We have already wiped out the Black Rhino species in West Africa,” she adds. She observes that in tandem with this year’s World Wildlife Day, running under the theme, ‘the future of wildlife is in your hands’, means survival of wildlife which, as she argues, is dependent on humans.
As part of events to commemorate the day, the ministry of tourism has organised a marathon whose aim is to raise awareness about the plight of not only elephants but all wildlife species.

what you need to know

Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd.

Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males.
Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. It is this memory that serves matriarchs well during dry seasons when they need to guide their herds, sometimes for tens of miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past. They also display signs of grief, joy, anger and play.

Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate over long distances by producing a sub-sonic rumble that can travel over the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.

Mating season is mostly during the rainy season with the gestation lasting 22 months. Twins are rare so elephants give birth to only one calf. At birth, a calf’s trunk has no muscle tone, therefore it will suckle through its mouth. It takes several months for a calf to gain full control of its trunk.


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