Editor’s note: On April 18, Conservation International will release its new virtual reality film, “My Africa,” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The film tells the story of a young Samburu woman in Kenya whose community is working to save elephants, reknitting an ancient coexistence between people and wildlife. In anticipation of the launch, Human Nature is highlighting stories about the people, places and wildlife of “My Africa.”
Surveys suggest there are only about 415,000 African elephants left in the wild, down from over one million a generation ago. Each year, tens of thousands of elephants are killed by ivory-seeking poachers and other forms of conflict.
On top of being amazing creatures, elephants actually make life better for all of us, sometimes in surprising ways. Here, Human Nature explores four ways elephants benefit your life.
Studies have shown that elephants help protect forest health in central Africa by distributing the seeds of trees. Because they roam over such great distances, elephants play a key role in spreading tree seedlings far and wide. Scientists have documented lower tree diversity in forests that have lost elephants, meaning a less healthy and resilience forest. Keeping forests healthy ensures they will continue to store carbon in their trunks, roots and soils, which in turn helps reduce the effects of climate change.
Poaching and wildlife trafficking undermine the safety of local villages by causing violence between hunters and communities. But at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, rangers are trained and credentialed as police reservists, who respond to both wildlife and non-wildlife crimes in the area.
Conservation International has helped to establish ranger patrols in the nearby Northern Rangelands Trust to defend the community and its wildlife from invading poachers. According to Conservation International CEO Dr. M. Sanjayan, this work is already making local allies by focusing on security and well-being.
“I once asked a woman, ‘What has conservation brought to you?’ And she said to me, ‘Conservation allows me to sleep with my shoes off at night.’ What she meant was that, because there is security in the region now, she doesn’t have to put on her shoes to flee when raiders come in.”
Elephants are “ecosystem engineers”: They push over trees to maintain savanna ecosystems, excavate waterholes and fertilize land, which helps other animals thrive. Elephants have also been shown to be an effective focal species for conservation planning, as their habitat is highly correlated to other large mammals and species of conservation interest. Elephants are found in a wide variety of ecosystems, including savannas, grasslands and forests, but also deserts, swamps and mountains. Protecting elephant habitat helps many other species as well.
A thriving tourist trade enables elephants to bring in money for local communities. A study estimated the tourism value of an elephant at US$ 1.6 million throughout its lifetime. These economics can be seen in Botswana, southern Africa’s most prosperous country and home to Africa’s largest elephant population. Tourism — most of it centered on the country’s wildlife—accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s economy. That figure has grown as Botswana has strengthened its protection of elephants.
At the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya, the first elephant orphanage in Africa owned and operated by the local community, featured in “My Africa,” community members are employed in saving orphaned elephants and returning them to the wild. The community now benefits directly from wildlife tourism. The revenue generated from healthy elephant populations means community members can improve their homes, expand their businesses and send their children to school.
What can you do?
To help keep elephants around, African nations are leading the Elephant Protection Initiative, a coalition of 18 African nations committed to closing their ivory markets and eliminating or placing their ivory stockpiles out of commercial use. As co-secretariat, Conservation International is working to support this African stand for elephants.
Conservation International supports the Sarara initiative, a partnership with the Northern Rangelands Trust to protect wildlife and expand ecotourism in Northern Kenya’s Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy. The initiative also supports the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which saves orphaned elephants together with the local Samburu community.
Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.