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Can time heal Zambia’s elephants? Though illegal slaughter for ivory has all but ended, young elephants are still paying a biological toll

Can time heal Zambia’s elephants? Though illegal slaughter for ivory has all but ended, young elephants are still paying a biological toll

Mark Owens

Swaying rhythmically across the African plains, like a tall gray ship sailing a grass-green sea, the young female elephant we call Gift strolled into our research camp on the Lubonga River in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park. Her trunk swept ahead, smelling for yellow fruits as she moved beneath the tall marula trees that tower over our stone and thatch cottages. Georgia, her 2-year-old calf, hurried along at her side, and, among the marula trees, they started to feed. Gift found a fruit, grasped it with the tip of her trunk and tossed it into her mouth as though it were a kernel of popcorn. She did the same with another, and another.

Georgia watched for two or three minutes, then tossed her trunk out into the grass, where it squirmed around like a runaway RotoRooter. Eventually she managed to grasp a fruit, but as she lifted it, it shot away from her.

She found another and, holding it firmly, curled her trunk under to deliver it to her mouth. She had seen her mother toss the fruits back, so, mimicking Mom, she took aim and fired. The marula struck her between her forelegs and bounced away.

She tried again. This time the yellow fruit sailed past her head. The next one passed her head on the other side. Fruits were ricocheting wildly all around her!

We leaned against the half-wall of our thatched kitchen a few feet away, almost crying with laughter. Finally, Georgia carefully curled her trunk under a fruit and placed it on her tongue. She closed her eyes as the sweet juices exploded through her mouth, and then she smacked loudly as she chewed. She would learn the tossing technique later.

We knew that behind this comic incident lay an important truth: Young elephants have a great deal to learn before they can become successful adults. Usually, elephants live in extended family groups in which the young animals acquire knowledge from their elders. But Gift and Georgia were on their own, so this vital component of elephant education was sadly missing from their lives. The reason: poaching.

From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, ivory poachers killed 93 percent of North Luangwa National Park’s elephants to help feed the world’s voracious appetite for ivory. The park straddles the remote and ruggedly beautiful Luangwa River Valley in Zambia, one of the last great wildlife strongholds on the continent. In the valley, a 736-kilometer (456-mi.) splinter off Africa’s Rift Valley, poachers slaughtered between 75,000 and 100,000 elephants during the same period. Our aerial censuses and ground observations showed that in 1987 alone, more than 1,000 elephants were shot in the park.

We had come to North Luangwa in 1986 to complete a research project on lions begun in Botswana. But when we took to the air and gauged the magnitude of the elephant slaughter–elephant skulls and skeletons littered the ground like white bowling balls and tenpins–we knew the lion research would have to wait. We wanted to find some way to put an end to this flagrant abuse of wildlife.

Bands of poachers, many 80 to 100 strong, camped out along park rivers, streams and springs–wherever elephants went to drink. They killed with impunity any animal larger than a deer in order to feed their armies and to sell the meat on the black market. They had wiped out all of the park’s 2,000 black rhinoceroses to supply an international trade in horn. They had virtually annihilated large mammals in the outer two-thirds of the park. At that rate, we knew, death soon would make North Luangwa a park on paper only.

But as of this writing, we have not lost a single park elephant in more than two years. An international ivory-trade ban in 1989, combined with effective anti-poaching patrols and community programs, has given North Luangwa elephants almost total security for the past five years. And yet, our research indicates that the population has not even begun to recover. A closer look at Gift and Georgia’s story shows why.

We first met Gift in 1989 as we were driving to our airstrip. We spotted two young, tuskless bulls, Long Tail and Cheers, feeding on a grove of winterthorn trees near the track. Gift, then no more than six years old, was wandering along behind them. As soon as we saw her shadowing the bulls, we knew some- thing tragic had happened to her. We suspected that poachers had killed her entire family.

Elephants are born into groups of 8 to 25 individuals led by old females called matriarchs. Within any group, at least several of the females are related. Males leave the groups when about 14 years old to wander alone or to associate loosely with other males. Females, however, usually stay with the group into which they were born.

During a lifetime of up to 60 years, elephants acquire a storehouse of knowledge. They learn how to avoid poachers, and they learn how to find springs during drought and lush meadows during early rains. Such collective wisdom has great survival value, and younger females must learn it from older, more experienced females: mothers, grandmothers, aunts. Even some maternal behavior is passed on across generations.

Poaching has unraveled the fabric of elephant social life, as Gift’s situation amply revealed. She was old enough to have been weaned, but her survival was dubious. Without a family of her own, she had no source for learning essential skills.

Gift was not unique in facing this challenge. We had seen many such anomalous social groupings as pieces of broken families banded with whomever they could find. Our studies revealed that 35 percent of the groups contained subadult orphans or very young, inexperienced mothers. Fully 5 percent were made up entirely of orphans.

Wandering around with her adopted males, Gift often would hold out her trunk to touch or greet them, as she would have greeted her mother, sisters, aunts and other family members. The males usually ignored her entreaties, but now and then Long Tail briefly allowed her to entwine her trunk with his before he pulled away to continue feeding. Afterward she would follow him closely for hours, as though needing more contact, possibly seeking reassurance from him after the trauma of past poaching.

The slaughter had disrupted greatly the daily patterns of the elephants’ lives. At first, Gift’s odd little group never ventured by day to drink or bathe at the river, where poachers set ambushes for them. Instead, the elephants came quietly to water only at night, slaked their thirst quickly, tossed some water over their backs, then hurried back into the cover of the forest. And because poachers used the elephant vocalizations to find and kill the animals, the group never dared make a sound.

Not once did we hear an elephant trumpet during our first four years in the Luangwa Valley. This deathly silence signaled how badly traumatized and dis- rupted elephant society had become. Under the stress from commercial poaching, the elephants had learned quickly that they could no longer behave as they would ordinarily. But this was just a hint of what we would learn.

During our first few years in North Luangwa, we never saw living elephants unless we were flying. The population had been so severely assaulted by poachers that individuals and groups ran from us even when we were more than a mile away. But almost as soon as we began airlifting better trained game scouts into hot poaching areas, the poaching gangs began giving our camp a wide birth. Bull elephants, apparently sensing sanctuary, began grazing and browsing along the river near camp. Nevertheless, the females with their cal- ves–the family units–remained wary and distant.

Elephant society was not the only one adversely affected by poaching. Whenever commercial poachers set up shop in an area devoid of economic opportunity, they instantly gain great power. Poachers ruled some villages the way drug dealers rule some city neighborhoods in other nations. Children as young as 10 years old were encouraged to drop out of school and become carriers for poachers. Barefoot, they were forced to walk for days with 50 pounds of meat, skins and ivory on their heads for a paltry sum equivalent to about 25 (U.S.) cents in a country where food is costly.

The illicit ivory trade stimulated corruption at every level of society. Game scouts warned poachers of patrols, sold ammunition to them, kept firearms for them and sometimes even poached for them. The military and the police supplied poachers with firearms, ammunition and trucks. As elephants disappeared, ivory became more and more scarce, driving the price ever higher, heightening the incentive for poachers to find and kill every last elephant with tusks. It was a downward spiral toward extinction driven by free-market economics.

Around our campfire, night after night, we discussed what it would take to slow down the poachers. Finally, we drove one day over the rugged mountains of the Muchinga Escarpment, the western wall of the Rift Valley in Zambia, to the villages that harbored many of the poachers. We wanted to hear about poaching from the people themselves.

Sitting cross-legged around foaming clay pots of village beer, we learned that subsistence farming and commercial poaching were the area’s only industries. Many villagers found jobs with poachers or were themselves poachers. Killing elephants and other animals and carrying their body parts to dealers around the railhead at Mpika provided two vital commodities: currency and protein. To defeat commercial poaching, we would have to find equally rewarding industries.

In 1987, we launched the North Luangwa Conservation Project, a mul- ti-dimensional effort that offered training and start-up loans for small vil- lage industries, seed loans and technical assistance to improve subsistence agriculture, conservation education for village schools and, eventually, rural health and family-planning programs.

In short, we wanted to supplant the illicit poaching-based economy with more diverse, beneficial and rewarding legal industries and activities. In the longer term, we planned to attract tourism to the park so local people could find jobs. The government agreed to help by investing a portion of tourism revenues into securing, developing and managing the park itself.

All of this eventually would undercut local support for commercial poachers. But unless we stanched the bleeding from the park, there would be no reason to plan long term. So we began beefing up anti-poaching activities by supplying local game-scout contingents with everything they needed to do their job: transportation, uniforms, boots, camping equipment, training and leadership. We also provided motivation in the form of rewards for every poacher captured and for every firearm, round of ammunition and snare confiscated. Furthermore, we helped the scouts understand that poaching is not only a crime against wildlife, but also against communities of people who need sustainable use of wildlife resources to better their lives. Gradually, we began winning the loyalty of the scouts by making it more honorable and rewarding to cooperate with us than with poachers.

But three years later, in 1989, failure seemed to stare us in the face. That year, poachers killed about 600 park elephants, and none of the businesses that we had helped villagers to develop–carpentry shops, fish farms, cooking-oil presses–competed successfully with the money that could be made killing elephants and selling ivory on the black market for $400 (U.S.) per kilogram ($182 per pound). For the African elephant to survive, something had to raise the cost of poaching relative to the benefit.

Finally, late in 1989, something did: At the behest of officials from Tan- zania, Kenya, Somalia, Gambia, Zaire, Chad, Niger and Zambia, who feared that poaching would wipe out their elephants, the member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international marketing of elephant parts.

Even though five southern African nations refused to observe the ban and con- tinued a regional trade in ivory, the effect on the ivory market was almost as instantaneous as it was dramatic. According to statements we have taken from poachers themselves, within days after the CITES ban went into effect, the black market price of ivory began to fall worldwide. During the first year of the ban, it fell to less than $60 (U.S.) per kilogram ($27 per pound) in the Northern Province of Zambia. By 1995, it had fallen to just $3 per kilogram ($1.36 per pound).

In the wake of the ban, little incentive remained for poachers to kill elephants for tusks. During the first year of the ivory ban, North Luangwa lost only 12 elephants to poachers, down from 600 the previous year and 800 the year before that.

Today, many poachers are turning to the business alternatives that our project offers, since such work is less risky, less labor-intensive and potentially more profitable than killing elephants. Instead of children dropping out of school to work for poachers, they are attending new schools built by ex-poachers hired by our project. Products such as honey, cooking oil, fish and soybeans are available for the first time in our 14 target villages near North Luangwa National Park.

Instead of gunshots ringing through the hills, we now hear elephants trumpet- ing as they come to the river to drink. In fact, we have not seen a dead elephant in North Luangwa since 1994. Bottom line: Coupling the ivory ban with even a moderately effective anti-poaching program and with our project’s offerings of work alternatives is a good formula for successful elephant con- servation.

A sign of that success came to us in the form of Gift. One June morning in 1994, we were sitting in our cottage by the river when Mwaba, one of our Zam- bian staff, came to the window and whispered, “Come and see! The baby elephant has a baby!”

As we came through the door, Mwaba pointed across the river just in time for us to see Gift, the orphan, moving away into thick bush. At her side was a tiny infant.

We were stunned. At most Gift could be only 10 or 11 years old–much too young to give birth. An elephant’s gestation period is 22 months, so Gift could have been no more than 8 or 9 years old when she conceived. In the early 1970s, before the Luangwa population was stressed by severe poaching, the average female first came into breeding condition at 14 years of age, giving birth at nearly 16. Gift was a mere subadult, and she was all alone with a tiny calf of her own.

The very next morning we took off in our chopper, flying from one elephant group to another, counting the number of newborns and young in each. All seemed to have at least one infant. Heading back for camp, we both felt as if the population was at last beginning to recover.

The bad news came in 1996, when our research indicated that more than five years of almost complete protection had brought no measurable increase to the North Luangwa elephant population. Because of poaching, the average elephant-group size in North Luangwa has fallen from eight to only 4.5 individuals. Nearly a quarter of the groups in North Luangwa are represented by a single female and her calf. The proportion of breeding-age animals in the population has dropped from at least 50 percent in pre-poaching days to a mere 14 percent. Most of the mothers we do find are very young. Elephant females reach reproductive prime between the ages of 25 and 40, but in North Luangwa and elsewhere, most females are killed before this age. Now, females only 10 years old are giving birth.

Working in East Africa, biologist Cynthia Moss has shown that elephants, like many other species, adjust reproductive output according to environmental con- ditions and their own population densities. During drought, female elephants have fewer calves by delaying puberty, coming into breeding condition less frequently or ceasing to breed altogether. As soon as the rains return, these factors are reversed.

The North Luangwa elephants apparently are increasing their reproductive out- put by breeding at a younger age and by having calves more frequently. But unlike recovery from a natural disaster, such as drought, recovery from poach- ing is likely to be much more prolonged because poachers targeted breeding individuals for their larger tusks. Only young and inexperienced females are left to breed, and many of their infants will die.

The males are even worse off. Carrying larger tusks, they are preferred by poachers and safari hunters alike. With only one exception, all the males near our camp are tuskless. Our research indicates that more than 38 percent of Luangwa elephants carry no tusks–a direct result of poachers altering the gene pool by killing off individuals with tusks. Moss and other researchers have reported that in natural, unstressed populations, only 2 percent of the animals are tuskless.

Moss and her colleague Joyce Poole have shown that female elephants select older, larger males for breeding–bulls more than 40 years old. Often females run away from young males to avoid mating with them. But in North Luangwa, there are no large, old males. During 10 years of intensive research, we have seen only one bull more than 35 years old. Also, in a natural, unstressed population, the sex ratio should be one male for every female. But in Luangwa, the inroads of poaching have put the sex ratio at seven females to every male, increasing the females’ difficulties in finding acceptable mates.

In short, not only have most of the North Luangwa elephants been shot, but their reproductive output and potential have been shot as well. Their ability to bounce back after drought, disease or other disasters is impaired. The shooting has stopped, but the elephants still live on the edge of extinction.

And yet, we feel certain that the elephants will recover if protection from poaching continues. Even in Gift’s story we can see reason for optimism.

During our first eight years at North Luangwa, only young bulls, and then Gift, visited our camp. Then one day about three years ago, we saw a group of six adult females and their calves at the river’s bend, just a quarter of a mile away. For North Luangwa, this was a large family, and they stayed nearby for several days. They came back again and again over the months, until we came to expect them. And of course we wondered–hoped–that Gift and Georgia would join them. Whenever we saw the family, we quickly grabbed field glasses to see if Gift and her daughter were with them, but always we were dis- appointed.

A year later, we were flying back to camp after another infant-elephant census when we saw a family with seven females and three calves near our huts. We circled the group, dropping lower so we could see if Gift and Georgia were among them. But we could not tell, and so we cruised the rocky foothills of the Muchinga Escarpment, looking in all of Gift’s old haunts.

Several minutes later, on one of the highest hilltops just below the rim of the scarp, a small female stood with a calf at her side. We hovered about 300 feet above the ground, but off to the side of the elephants. It was Gift, still alone with Georgia. Nevertheless, she represents what is happening in the new elephant society. She is starting over again, building her own family unit, beginning with a single calf. She is doing it alone, but at least she is doing it, showing that the population can come back at the measured pace of one elephant at a time.

COPYRIGHT 1997 National Wildlife Federation

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