During the twentieth century, African elephant populations plummeted by nearly 90 percent from historic estimates of nearly five million in the early 1900s, to only about 450,000 individual elephants today. Man’s desire for ivory has been a driver in the decline, but so is habitat loss due to human population growth. All over Africa, human-elephant interactions are a tense affair, with elephants seen as crop raiders and pests by local peoples.
Their continued survival depends on the conservation efforts of rangers, conservation experts, local peoples, and governments worldwide. The 1980s saw a dramatic decline in African elephants, as poaching halved the population. With the rise of Asia’s middle class, we are now entering a second wave of mass poaching throughout Africa.
For now, the elephants of South Africa’s Kruger National Park seem to be immune to poaching, even as the park fights rhino poachers daily. However, the threat to the park’s elephants looms on the horizon. Indeed, Kruger’s 2012 zoning plan calls for buffer zones along the “eastern boundary to address rhino poaching (and possible future elephant poaching) emanating from Mozambique.”
Highly social animals, elephant families consist of about 4-14 individuals, but groups maintain ties with dozens of clan members, and sometimes hundreds of casual acquaintances across vast distances.
As human populations grow, elephants are pushed into smaller and smaller reserves, erasing ancient migration routes, and leaving only genetically isolated populations in parks throughout Africa.
Elephants exhibit complex social hierarchies and relationships. When two elephants meet, for example, often the submissive animal will place its trunk in the mouth of the dominate elephant, as part of the greeting.
Acting as both a sunscreen and a barrier to insects, red clay and mud are often used to help protect elephant skin from the elements. Though elephant skin appears tough, it is very sensitive to moisture loss and parasites.
Calves and mothers form particularly strong bonds that may last a lifetime. Usually weaned after 4-6 years, female elephants may stay in their maternal herd for much of their lives.
Near to Kruger are several smaller elephant reserves and sanctuaries. Tembo, a problem animal from a herd in Zimbabwe, was relocated to South Africa in lieu of culling. Crop raiding elephants can destroy a year’s harvest in little more than an hour.
Though elephants in Kruger have been immune to illegal hunting in recent years, the park’s other giants, the rhinoceros, are being decimated by poachers coming from Mozambique. Rhino horn, ground and snorted as a cure-all, is worth more per ounce than gold or cocaine on the streets of Vietnam.